Blog 4: Preface 5-6
How is the true church to be known? Calvin's response in the preface to the Institutes is clear: it is known by "the pure preaching of God's Word and the lawful administration of the sacraments." Contrary to Roman insistence that the church is always marked by great pomp and is always visible, Calvin (perhaps to the encouragement of beleaguered evangelicals in France secretly meeting is small numbers and without outward show) reminds King Francis that the church often appeared in less than glorious form to the human eye, both in the Old Testament and in church history.
It is important to see this emphasis on the church in Calvin. He commented on psalm 115:17, "The whole order of nature would be subverted, unless God preserved the church. For the creation of the world would serve no purpose if there were no people to call upon God." And it is well to remember that Calvin was, at every point in his adult life and ministry, a pastor as well as a theologian.
The rancid tone of these sections of the preface, aimed as they are against the bishops and prelates of the Roman Church, are not an indication of Calvin's low view of the church and the ease with which one could criticize or leave it. On the contrary, Calvin viewed schism as "the worst and most harmful evil in the church of God" (Commentary on John 9:16), and warned in Book 4 of the Institutes "it is always disastrous to leave the church" (4.1.4). In the words of Charles Partee, "Calvin insisted that the Protestants were reformers of the church, not its deformers." (The Theology of John Calvin [Westminster: John Knox Press, 2008], 267).
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