Sunday, August 29, 2010

Calvin on the Holy Catholic Church

I'm making my way into the fourth and final book of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, entitled, "The External Means or Aids by Which God Invites Us Into the Society of Christ and Holds Us Therein." The first topic in this book is the Church. In this post I'll write some of my thoughts on Chapters I-III.

Calvin's ecclesiology in the Institutes is one of the more interesting topics I've come across, mostly because it's not widely talked about when people refer to "Calvinism." Ecclesiology is interesting to me these days for a variety of reasons. I suppose it has a lot to do with particular experiences I've had in and since college, but I also think it's worth all Christians thinking about. I know it's not the hottest topic at most evangelicals' Bible studies, but it really is one of the central questions of all of Scripture: what defines God's people?

Calvin's doctrine of the Church is so strong that you would think he was Catholic--and in a sense, he was, or at least he thought of himself that way. What he rebelled against was, as is poignantly made clear in Chapter II, the corruption of the Romanist Church. It's important to read Chapter I before Chapter II for two reasons. Firstly, you can't understand just how serious he is about calling the Roman Catholic Church not a church, unless you understand how serious he is about the unity of the Church. Secondly, it will do no good in our time to take all the heated rhetoric of Reformation out of context. What we have in our day all too often is a wealth of criticism without any ability to replace what we're criticizing with a coherent alternative.

Here is Calvin's view of the Church, put simply in Section 1 of Chapter I:
"For what God has joined together, it is not lawful to put asunder" [Mark 10:9 p.], so that, for those to whom he is Father the church may also be Mother.
Make no mistake, Calvin is talking about the visible Church (Sec. 4). In fact, it is quite clear that when Calvin talks about the "invisible" Church, he does not mean the "real" one. In context he is mostly referring to those who are not yet Christians; his primary motivation for bringing up the invisible Church is to remind us that we must also consider ourselves bound to people to whom we don't yet have a formal attachment.

He concedes that not all Christians are true, and that some will be exposed on the day of judgment. But using parables from the Gospel of Matthew such as the wheat and the weeds (Mt. 13:24-30), he argues that it is not only futile but harmful to try to sort out in this life who is a true believer and who is merely a hypocrite. Our loyalty should be to the Church, no matter what sort of moral corruption we might see within it. Thus Calvin spends several sections in Chapter I criticizing those such as the Anabaptists and other separatists who seek a pure Church.

This I find to be an extremely important counter to the American evangelical's constant need for a Church that's more "true." We seem to be more Anabaptist than Reformed in our ecclesiology, at least in practice. Yet it's more of a relativist strain of Anabaptist ecclesiology, wherein "other churches are true churches, too, but this is the church that I personally agree with most." Completely missing is the consideration of the unity of the Church as a whole. And I think to even suggest such a consideration will almost always get you either blank looks or possibly sneers. I've heard people talk about "Reformed Catholicity," but at this point it is structurally impossible for this to be anything more than an abstract idea. I hate to sound so cynical about that, but there simply is no denying the plain facts.

So what is, exactly, the mark of the true Church? Calvin has a pretty succinct answer in Section 9 of Chapter I:
Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ's institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.
Calvin says that the moral purity of pastors and members of a congregation cannot annul the benefit of Word and sacrament. As long as these essential elements are there, it doesn't really matter how bad things get; God is at work, and he will be faithful. For Calvin, preaching is not a matter of a preacher coming up with words to say to his congregation. It is about God speaking through a man who has nothing in himself. Likewise, the sacraments don't have any power in themselves, nor are they made effective by those administering them; but are effective by God's grace.

In this context, Calvin defends the decision to break with the Roman Catholic Church in Chapter II. Calvin has not left himself any room to use mild language. If he insists that we must unite ourselves to Church no matter how much corruption there is within it, then he must have a severely compelling argument that the Roman Church is not the Church. Indeed, the word "antichrist" does come up. It's very sad to read this, but it's also easy to be very judgmental from a modern perspective, without understanding the depth of the conflict that led up to this language. I don't feel the need to repeat any of Calvin's invective against the "papists."

There is, however, a silver lining, so to speak. Calvin ends Chapter II with a word of qualification.
However, when we categorically deny to the papists the title of the church, we do not for this reason impugn the existence of churches among them. Rather, we are only contending about the true and lawful constitution of the church, required in the communion not only of the sacraments (which are the signs of profession) but also especially of doctrine.
The section following these words nevertheless ends on a critical note, showing that whatever Calvin was willing to concede to the "papists," he was still wholly convinced that Roman Catholicism was utterly devoid of the true marks of the Church.

Chapter III is not quite as interesting to me, and I suppose I won't get into it tonight since I'd rather not write for much longer. This chapter talks about the ordination of church officers, a rather dry subject for most of us (including me). It all felt familiar to me, since it is more or less what Presbyterians follow to this day.

Calvin does make some interesting remarks about why God chooses to speak through men, rather than just speak directly. I'm a little bit troubled by the argument, but I can also see how it has some force. Here's the comment that interests me:
If he spoke from heaven, it would not be surprising if his sacred oracles were to be reverently received without delay by the ears and minds of all. For who would not dread the presence of his power? Who would not be stricken down at the sight of such great majesty? Who would not be confounded at such boundless splendor? But when a puny man risen from the dust speaks in God's name, at this point we best evidence our piety and obedience toward God if we show ourselves teachable toward his minister, although he excels us in nothing.
This is certainly a good attitude to have toward preachers--they excel us in nothing. But the implication that God is not interested in making his will immediately received by all is troubling. I'm troubled by the idea of God testing people by obscuring his own message.

One more general comment about Calvin's ecclesiology. While I do appreciate his high appreciation for the unity and necessity of the Church, I also think his view is too instrumental. That is, he views the Church solely as a "means of grace," i.e. some tool God uses to make us more righteous. Is there not a sense in which God created the Church simply because that's what he loves? The question I'm asking is this: is the Church merely an umbrella for all the individuals who come to believe in Christ, or is it an entity in itself, with its own life and meaning in God's eyes? When I read that the Church is the Bride of Christ, or even his own Body, I am convinced that the Church has a more fundamental role in God's eyes than just being a tool for helping believers on the path to eternal life. I don't see Calvin specifically disagreeing with this, but he also fails to address it, which is disappointing.

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