John Calvin on the Church
In view of the present discussions in Reformed and Presbyterian circles about the doctrine of the Church it might be beneficial to pass on some of the views of John Calvin on this matter. The quotations cited below are taken from his Institutes of the Christian Religion as translated by Henry Beveridge.
The Holy Catholic Church, Our Mother
After reminding his readers at the beginning of Book IV that it has been shown in the previous Book that Christ becomes ours only by faith in the gospel, Calvin makes it clear that now the time has come to observe how God, because of "...our ignorance and sloth..., secured the effectual preaching of the gospel, by depositing this treasure with the Church." From the outset of this treatise on the Church, Calvin clearly shows that the Church with her appointed pastors and teachers and the administration of Word and sacraments, is not a human but a divine institution. "What God has thus joined, let no man put asunder (Mark 10:9): to those to whom He is a Father, the Church must also be a mother" (Book 4 Ch.1, Sec.1. Hereafter only the sec. no. will be indicated).
Although Calvin intends to deal with the Church as it can be seen by us, he first wants to draw our attention to the Church as seen by God. Calvin teaches that election forms the foundation of the Church and that we must embrace the number of the elect by uniting ourselves with fellow believers under the one Head, Jesus Christ. Thus God knows all who are His (2 Timothy 2:19), but we must "...feel persuaded that we are truly ingrafted." The Church, like her Head, must be one. Hence she is called Catholic or Universal, "...for two or three cannot be invented without dividing Christ; and this is impossible."
After a short résumé of earlier renditions of the article about the Church in the Apostles' Creed, Calvin concludes that it is better to speak of believing the Church than in the Church. For we do not put our trust in the gifts themselves, but in God who has given them. We believe the Church in order to profess that she "...cannot be extinguished, — the blood of Christ cannot be rendered barren, and prevented from producing fruit." Calvin also reminds us in this second section of the time of Elijah. Even though it seemed that the Church no longer existed, "...it was said to Elijah, 'Yet I have left Me seven thousand in Israel" (1 Kings 19:18) (2).
The addition to this article of the Creed, "the communion of saints," "…admirably expresses the quality of the Church; … that all the blessings which God bestows upon them are mutually communicated to each other." For having one common Father, one common Head, "…they cannot but be united together in brotherly love, and mutually impart their blessings to each other." Calvin makes clear that it is in the "bosom" of the Church that God will grant His blessings, that He proclaims His promise of deliverance. Furthermore, since we are not able to distinguish between the elect and the reprobate (since this belongs to God only), we must know ourselves set apart "…as the proper and peculiar possession of God, and that as we are of the number, we are also partakers of this great grace" (3).
Calvin now elaborates on the image of a mother — an image that rightly fits the Church as we perceive it. For we are not only conceived but also fed and nourished by her. We would do ourselves short by leaving her, for with our natural immature disposition we would not survive without her (4).
Her Gifts May Not be Despised
We receive from her spiritual food. It is by her education that we may proceed to manhood. It is in her "bosom" that we find pastors and teachers; it is by the preaching of the gospel that faith is worked.
"God Himself appears and, as the author of this ordinance, requires His presence to be recognized in His own institution." It is His good pleasure to teach us by these human means; "…because, although the power of God is not confined to external means, He has, however, confined us to His ordinary method of teaching … Wherefore, in order that the pure simplicity of the faith may flourish among us, let us not decline to use this exercise of piety, which God by His institution of it has shown to be necessary, and which He so highly recommends." Calvin points to the Old Testament to emphasize our dependence on this ordinance of God. He mentions the sanctuary, "…the place where He (i.e. God) will record His name (Exodus 20:24); thus plainly teaching that no use could be made of it without the doctrine of godliness … For God only consecrates temples to their legitimate use by His word" (5).
Calvin relates to us a dispute about the efficacy of the ministry. The one overrates it, while the other dismisses it altogether. However, the problem does not seem to be difficult. For God Himself connects His Spirit to the preaching, and as a result it cannot but be beneficial. The Scripture clearly teaches that it is not man's word but the Word of God that is preached and therefore works effectually (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:13). At the same time it must be understood that, although preaching is the means desired, it is the Holy Spirit who illuminates the mind and renews the heart (cf. also 1 Corinthians 3:7). "Still everyone who listens with docility to the ministers whom God appoints, will know by the beneficial result, that for good reason God is pleased with this method of teaching, and for good reason has laid believers under this modest yoke" (6).
The Marks by which She is Recognized
Calvin reiterates the two ways Scripture speaks about the Church: "…as it really is before God…, (and) the whole body of mankind scattered throughout the world who profess to worship one God and Christ…" In the latter are people who have only an outward appearance of godliness, hypocrites who cannot be detected, and evil-speaking men who are sometimes tolerated. Still Calvin concludes: "Hence, as it is necessary to believe the invisible Church, which is manifest to the eye of God only, so we are also enjoined to regard this Church which is so called with reference to man, and to cultivate its communion" (7).
In the following sections Calvin deals with the marks of the Church. For since we are unable to judge those "…who openly bear His badge…," the Lord deemed it sufficient to give us "the judgment of charity." It is this judgment that allows us to acknowledge those gathered with us as members of the Church. However, the judgment of His body must of necessity for our salvation be "…made known to us by surer marks" (8).
The Church exists there where the Word of God and the sacraments are administered according to the institution of Christ. There is then, first, a common tie with believers collected out of all nations and, secondly, in more "conspicuous" view, with those in different towns and villages. There is, Calvin says, "…a slight difference in the mode of judging of individuals and of Churches." There are those who by their conduct prove themselves unworthy as members but must still be recognized as part of the people of God "….until they are legitimately deprived of it." With the "general body" it is different. As long as "…they have the ministry of the Word, and honour … the sacraments, they are undoubtedly entitled to be ranked with the Church ... (Therefore we must not deny) authority to lawful assemblies distributed as circumstances require" (9).
We May not Leave her
Wherever, then, the Word of God "has a fixed abode" and the preaching of that word is heard and the sacraments as instituted are maintained, "…the face of the Church appears without deception or ambiguity…" This is the reason why Calvin emphatically warns that separation from the Church as described above "…is a denial of God and Christ … No crime can be imagined more atrocious than that of … violating the sacred marriage which the only begotten Son of God has condescended to contract with us" (10).
Therefore it is all-important to maintain "…the signs and badges…" that characterize the Church of Christ (11). The marks enable us to recognize a Church, and as a standard they prevent numerous faults. In this section Calvin deals with the fact that faults nevertheless do creep in. He then makes the distinction between the proper essentials and the nonessentials of religion. After giving some examples of both he concludes: "…I have no wish to patronize even the minutest errors…; what I say is, that we are not on account of every minute difference to abandon a Church, provided it retain sound and unimpaired that doctrine in which the safety of piety consists, and keep the use of the sacraments instituted by the Lord" (12).
There are always people who do not accept this distinction, who are, Calvin says, "…imbued with a false persuasion of absolute holiness." In this regard, he refers to the Cathari (i.e. "the pure" sect in the 11th century), the Donatists (4th century), and the Anabaptists of his own days. What these people did not understand is that the Church of God, as long as she remains on earth, contains a mixture of good and bad. This we learn from Scripture itself, where "…the Lord declares that the Church will labour under the defect of being burdened with a multitude of wicked until the day of judgment... (Matthew 13)" (13).
Calvin also points to the dreadful situation of the congregation of Corinth. "If there the Church still remains, simply because the ministration of Word and sacrament is not rejected, who will presume to deny the title of Church to those to whom a tenth part of these crimes cannot be imputed?" (14).
And when these purists object to sitting at the Lord's Table with those whom they consider impure, then Calvin agrees that the unworthy indeed have no right to partake in this sacred feast, but "…it does not therefore follow that every private individual is to decide the question of separation for himself." What is more, the Bible clearly teaches in this respect that we do not examine others, but that everyone ought to examine himself. The oversight of the Lord's Supper does not belong to an individual but "…belongs to the whole Church" (15).
These objections come from people who are effected by "inconsiderate zeal for righteousness … and a false idea of sanctity..." Calvin refers to Augustine who also stressed in his time that these people with their superior progress cause schisms because they are void of sincere love for their fellow brothers. Let them reflect, Calvin concludes, "that in the ministry of the Word and participation of the sacraments, the power to collect the Church is too great to be deprived of all its efficacy, by the fault of some ungodly men. Lastly, let them reflect that in estimating the Church, divine is of more force than human judgment" (16).
She is the Bride of Christ
Another argument is that the Church is called holy. Calvin shows from Scripture that this holiness is attributed to the Church through Christ (cf. Ephesians 5:25-27), but that we, set apart, and daily making progress, will never reach near perfection in this life. We must remember that God, in spite of the corruption of man, has by the sure word of His promise maintained a Church throughout the ages (17).
The New as well as the Old Testament clearly testify that the ungodliness of the members does not require new churches. As the prophets of the Old Testament worshipped God amid the ungodly, so Christ and the apostles in the New Testament, in spite of the impiety that prevailed everywhere, congregated "…in one common temple for the public exercises of religion." Calvin concludes from Scripture: first, that no one abandons "…a church in which the Word of God is preached and the sacraments are administered; secondly, that notwithstanding of the faults of a few or of many there is nothing to prevent us from there duly professing our faith in the ordinances instituted by God…" (18, 19).
Another aspect which should not be overlooked by those who advocate a pure Church is the article of the Creed subjoined to the belief of the Church, namely, the forgiveness of sins. For we should not forget, that "…our first entrance into the Church and the kingdom of God is by forgiveness of sins, without which we have no covenant nor union with God" (20).
The Lord's ablution of all our sins is not only of force when we are elected and admitted into the Church, but it also preserves and defends us throughout our whole life in the Church. "Wherefore, as during our whole lives we carry about with us the remains of sin, we could not continue in the Church one single moment were we not sustained by the uninterrupted grace of God in forgiving our sins" (21).
We see the significance of this forgiveness especially in the "power of the keys, which the Lord bestowed on the company of the faithful." It is in the continuous message of reconciliation which is proclaimed by the ministry of the Church, be it in public or in private. Therefore we do well "…to seek forgiveness where the Lord has placed it" (22).
The Novations in ancient times and the Anabaptists in Calvin's days considered baptism a once-for-all regeneration. This implies, according to Calvin, the very removal of "…the only anchor of salvation...," that is, the ministry of reconciliation. He rightly calls this a "pestilential opinion." This opinion is clearly refuted by Scripture. Calvin points to the fifth petition: "Forgive us our debts." The Lord taught us to pray this throughout our lives. The Lord also spoke about pardoning seventy times seven. Would then the Lord not answer us, asks Calvin, when we "…sighing call upon him"? (23).
In sections 24-27, Calvin gives many examples from the Old and the New Testament of God's great mercy in forgiving the many atrocities committed by his sinful children. Therefore let us not doubt that our Father, for Christ's sake, will pardon all our sins. While in the Old Testament God's uninterrupted grace was signified by the daily sacrifice for sins, in the New Testament the fulness of His grace is clearly expressed in the advent of Christ. There are some people who will concede that the Scriptures clearly refute the once-for-all regeneration but who would confine the forgiveness of sins to those committed in ignorance. Calvin shows that such a position is not tenable either, since Scripture clearly teaches that even "voluntary" transgressions are graciously forgiven. "Therefore, let us not by our malice shut the door against the divine mercy, when so benignly manifested" (28).
Some ancient writers also made a distinction between lighter errors and heinous public crimes. They exacted for the latter a formal repentance which would then not be repeated again. Although Calvin expresses understanding for such a position, since this would work as a deterrent for others, he nevertheless exhorts that the Word of God "…prescribes greater moderation, since it teaches that the rigour of discipline must not be stretched so far as to overwhelm with grief the individual for whose benefit it should specially be designed (2 Corinthians 2:7)..." (29).
The True and the False Church
In his second chapter, Calvin compares the false and the true Church. In the first he has made clear that errors of conduct, controversy regarding nonessential points of doctrine, does not prevent the use of the name Church. As long as the Word of God as proclaimed by apostles and prophets receives the central place, she continues as the pillar and bulwark of the truth. The false Church, in contrast, inverts this necessary doctrine and consequently causes the death of the Church (1).
"Since this is the state of matters under the Papacy, we can understand how much of the Church there survives." Therefore we do not have to be afraid that by abandoning her, we leave the Church of Christ. Neither should we become confused by their claim of perpetual succession of bishops. It is not only a distortion of history, but it is also not decisive in establishing the legitimacy of the Church. Most important is that succeeding generations retain the truth of Christ as handed down to them by their fathers (2).
In section 3 Calvin gives examples from the Old and the New Testament to repudiate the Romanists with their external observances (cf. Jeremiah 7:4; Romans 9-12). He also refers to Bishop Augustine, who mentions "…that the strongest pillars of the Church often bravely endured exile for the faith, or lay hid throughout the world" (3).
Therefore, the external symbols of temple, priesthood, "…and similar masks…" are of no consequence in the light of Jesus' words: "Everyone that is of the truth heareth my voice" (John 18:37). This sign only, says Calvin, "…proves the existence of the Church…" (4).
This is why Calvin also puts aside their accusation of heresy and schism. He again refers to Augustine, who makes the following distinction between heretics and schismatics: "…the former corrupt the purity of the faith by false dogmas, whereas the latter sometimes, even while holding the same faith, break the bond of union" (August. Lit. Quaest. in Evang. Matthew) (5).
Calvin also refers to Cyprian, who uses the images of a sun and a tree to show the fountain of ecclesiastical concord from the one bishopric of Christ. "Pluck a ray from the body of the sun, and the unity sustains no division. Break a branch from a tree, and the branch will not germinate … So the Church, pervaded by the light of the Lord, extends over the whole globe, and yet the light which is everywhere diffused is one" (Cyprian, de Simplicit. Praelat.). Accordingly, Cyprian declares, heresies and schisms take place because they do not seek the Head, nor do they keep His words (6).
In sections 7 and 8 Calvin deals with the question: How must we consider the apostate Church of the Old Testament? First, we must observe her several gradations from the true worship. Further we must see the distinction between the self-willed destructive religion in the kingdom of the ten tribes and the presence of at least the doctrine, priesthood, and instituted rites in Judah.
Comparing the corrupt situation of the Papists with the state of religion in Israel, Calvin cannot but conclude that it is even worse with them. In the Old Testament the prophets were not compelled to partake in, or obliged to witness, any superstitious worship, while in the Romanist Church none else is demanded (9).
And as far as due recognition of her authority is concerned, how could this be done when she has robbed the power of the keys as given by Christ? For they have put the word of truth to flight. "Therefore, in this point of view, they either are not Churches, or no badge will remain by which the lawful meetings of the faithful can be distinguished from the meetings of Turks" (10).
"Still, as in ancient times, there remained among the Jews certain special privileges of a Church, so in the present day we deny not to the Papists those vestiges of a Church which the Lord has allowed to remain among them amid the dissipation." Pointing to the covenant of the Lord, Calvin explains that God, by preserving His covenant in the old dispensation, prevented faith from being completely obliterated. The same is true in the new. God preserved baptism "…consecrated by His lips … (and) provided by His providence that there should be other remains also to prevent the Church from utterly perishing" (11).
"Therefore, while we are unwilling simply to concede the name of Church to the Papists, we do not deny that there are Churches among them." However, the point in question is not those vestiges, but the legitimate constitution of the Church. And when we look at their Church and their leader, the Roman Pontiff, then it is not the "city of God" that comes to mind, but the appearance of "Babylon." "In one word, I call them Churches, inasmuch as the Lord there wondrously preserves some remains of His people … But as, on the other hand, those marks to which we ought especially to have respect in this discussion are effaced, I say that the whole body as well as every single assembly, want the form of a legitimate Church" (12).
Thus far the views of John Calvin on the doctrine of the Church. In a future issue I hope to come back to these views in order to see how they have been assimilated by some of the Reformed Confessions and how they have been interpreted by certain theologians.