Calvin and The Church
John Calvin was a churchman. He not only proclaimed a theology of the church, but he labored to build, teach and preserve the church. Four hundred fifty years ago - in 1541 - Calvin's service to the church expressed itself in several ways that can encourage and help us today.
As the year 1541 opened, Calvin was still a resident of Strassburg. He had lived there since his exile from Geneva in 1538. He had occupied his years with writing, pastoring a French refugee congregation, developing his theology and marrying Idolette de Bure. In 1540 the leaders of the city of Geneva had urged Calvin to take up his pastoral work there again and in September 1541 he did return to Geneva. In his work for Strassburg and his work in Geneva in 1541, we can see Calvin's concern for the unity and the purity of the church.
At the beginning of 1541, Calvin was continuing his involvement in ecumenical conferences. The Emperor Charles V had called various theologians together to try to restore the unity of the church. The leading Protestant representatives were Philip Melanchthon, Luther's right-hand man, and Martin Bucer, the leading reformer of Strassburg. Bucer asked Calvin to accompany him. (Calvin was beginning to be recognized as a leader at age 31.) Calvin's letters about the final conference in Regensburg reflect something of his attitudes about the unity of the church. He was not optimistic about the outcome, but was willing to try: "although scant, there is however, the hope of doing somewhat.''1 Later he wrote, "Though I find my prolonged stay here to be irksome, ye; never shall I regret having come."2 Years later in a letter to Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, Calvin would give fuller expression to his concern for unity:
And would that it were attainable to bring together into some place, from various Churches, men eminent for their learning, and that after having carefully discussed the main points of belief one by one, they should, from their united judgments, hand down to posterity the true doctrine of Scripture ... So much does this concern me, that, could I be of any service, I would not grudge to cross even ten seas, if need were, on account of it ... Now seeing that a serious and properly adjusted agreement between men of learning upon the rule of Scripture is still a desideratum, by means of the Churches, though divided on other questions, might be made to unite, I think it right for me, at whatever cost of toil and trouble, to seek to obtain this object.3
Calvin's decision to return to Geneva also reflected his concern for the unity of the church. He had never wanted to undertake pastoral work in Geneva and after his exile, he did not want to return. But he believed that he was called by God to that work, and seeing the decline of the church without him, concluded that he must go back. Still he insisted that the unity of the church would be protected by drafting Ecclesiastical Ordinances (a church order) immediately upon his return. These Ordinances described the four offices of the church (pastor, doctor, elder and deacon) and specified matters of worship and discipline. The issue of spiritual discipline and the church's right to excommunicate was especially important to Calvin since it was over that issue that he had been exiled. He believed that a sound church order was crucial to the unity and harmony of the church. He wrote in a letter to his former colleague in the ministry at Geneva, William Farel:
Immediately after I had offered my services to the Senate, I declared that a Church could not hold together unless a settled government should be agreed on, such as is prescribed to us in the word of God, and such as was in the ancient Church.4
Calvin achieved most of what he wanted in the matter of discipline, but had to settle and was willing to settle for less than perfection. In 1542 he wrote of the order adopted on discipline:
We at length possess a Presbyterial Court, such as it is, and a form of discipline, such as these disjointed times permit.5
As Calvin labored in Geneva to build up the church, his friend Farel was seeking to do the same in Neuchatel. Calvin had great regard for Farel's integrity, wisdom and zeal. Yet he knew that Farel could sometimes be too inflexible. In his concern for the peace and unity of the church, Calvin wrote Farel to be flexible when possible:
...we only desire earnestly that, in so far as your duty will admit, you will accommodate yourself more to the people. There are, as you know, two kinds of popularity: the one, when we hunt after favor from motives of ambition and the desire of pleasing; the other, when, by fairness and moderation, we gain upon their esteem, so as to make them willing to be taught by us... With reference to this particular point, we perceive that you do not give satisfaction even to some good men.6
For all his great concern about the unity of the church, Calvin was just as passionate about the purity of the church. One could not always be flexible. He observed the proceedings at Regensburg and saw, with grave misgivings, the accommodating methodology of Melanchthon and Bucer as they worked for unity with the Roman Catholics. He described their approach:
Philip and Bucer have drawn up ambiguous and insincere formulas concerning transubstantiation, to try whether they could satisfy the opposite party by yielding nothing. I could not agree to this device, although they have, as they conceive, reasonable grounds for doing so, for they hope that in a short time it would so happen that they would begin to see more clearly if the matter of doctrine shall be left an open question for the present; therefore they rather wish to skip over it...7
In other words Calvin sees the Protestant leaders trying to devise an ambiguous formula that would not deny anything basic to Protestant belief, but would be so vague as to allow apparent agreement in the present with the hope that in the future the other side might be won over. Calvin saw this methodology as flawed and dangerous: "they ... do not dread that equivocation in matter of conscience, than which nothing can possibly be more hurtful." 8 Calvin saw such deliberate efforts at ambiguity as disastrous for the cause. In another letter he praised the virtues of a bold presentation of the truth: "...deliberately, without fear of offense, I condemned that peculiar local presence; the act of adoration I declared to be altogether insufferable. Believe me, in matters of this kind, boldness is absolutely necessary for strengthening and confirming others."9
For Calvin, unity could not be purchased at the expense of cardinal truths of the faith. Of the compromise efforts with the Roman Catholics at Regensburg, he wrote, "So far as I understand, if we could be content with only a half Christ, we might easily come to understand one another." 10
Calvin's care for the purity of the church is seen clearly in his activities on returning to Geneva. The Ecclesiastical Ordinances not only insured the unity of the church, but also its purity in being governed according to the Word of God. Calvin was unwilling to return to Geneva if the basic Scripture order of the church was not guaranteed in Geneva.
His zeal for the truth was reflected in the preaching and teaching that he did in 1541. In that year he wrote a very helpful work on the controverted subject of the Lord's Supper, Short Treatise on the Holy Supper. He also translated the important 1539 revision of his Institutes into French so that it could be read by more people.
What can we learn from Calvin's great labors for Christian unity and truth in 1541? Some lessons are easy. The unity of the church is very important and should be vigorously pursued. Christian truth is very important and must be carefully studied. Truth and unity are not separate and competing ideas, but are interconnected and interdependent. Unity is unity in truth as well as association. Truth proclaims the doctrine of the unity of the church.
Can Calvin help us with our concerns for the unity and purity of the church in 1991? Calvin clearly recognized that some issues of truth were not of enough importance to divide the church. But Calvin does not give us any specific guidelines for distinguishing vital issues from peripheral ones. He does give us some clues as to his approach.
First, the source of authority for truth in the church must be recognized as the Scriptures. Truth, and unity grounded in the truth, must be based on the Bible. That conviction cannot be compromised.
Second, the Scripture functions as our authority as we study its particular teachings. We cannot just vaguely appeal to the spirit of the Bible. We must derive Biblical truth by studying and comparing the various texts of Scripture.
Third, the unity and truth of the church today must be related to the ancient church. Unity and truth are not just contemporary concerns, but also historic ones. We must be unified in truth with the church of the ages. Modern innovations are likely to be heretical or schismatic.
Fourth, we must be honest and straightforward. Unity and truth are not served by devious ambiguity. Only when we honestly state our views, can we determine whether we can be united in truth.
Calvin's work in 1541 encourages us to love Christ's church in its truth and unity. In that church we want to serve and know the whole Christ, not "a half Christ." As we study the Scriptures, I believe that we still find the whole Christ best in the Reformed heritage that Calvin among others has provided for us.