John Calvin on the True Church
May 17, 2016
When is a "church" not a church? How do we recognize the true church of Jesus Christ? And how do we discern the false? Calvin's answer, in the Institutes 4.2.1 - 4.2.12, to what was in his day--and remains--an important question, is, essentially: the ministry of the Word and of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper are the hallmarks of the true church. Where these are lacking, "surely the death of the church follows."
Why should this be so? Because the church is built on the prophets and apostles (Eph. 2:20). They have a primacy of role in person in the course of redemptive history; but their teaching is the foundation for every generation of Christian faith. Substitute another foundation for the church and the whole building will crumble.
But in Calvin's eyes Roman Catholic theology failed to grasp this, and effectively transferred the authority of the once-for-all written apostolic word to the questionable strength of a chain of bishops of varying degrees of orthodoxy and reliability.
Physical succession may be attractive, but it guarantees nothing. That is precisely why we have the written Scriptures, so that the truth of God may be carefully preserved and passed on intact from believing generation to believing generation. Neither biblically instructed Christians of the 16th century nor the Fathers of the church in the early centuries believed that a mere succession of bishops guaranteed that the gospel message would be maintained in its pristine purity.
This is why Calvin's departure from the community of physical succession was not schism. For how could agreement in the word of God be regarded as schism from the church of God?
The episcopacy that holds the church together in unity is not man's but Christ's. The unity of the church, therefore, is not a formal, historical reality made concrete in an institution (the college of bishops or the pope). Rather it is a dynamic reality, born out of living union and communion with the one true bishop of our souls, the Lord Jesus Christ. Rome's fault was not only its boast in the historic episcopacy but in its failure to make confession of biblical truth and in its anathematizing of those who did.
If the truth be told, not Geneva but Rome is schismatic. More than that, Rome harbors idolatry within its bosom in the celebration of "the Mass, which we abominate as the greatest sacrilege" (4.2.9).
Yet, it remains true, Calvin acknowledges, that there are believers--however confused--within the pale of Rome. Correspondingly there are "traces of churches," but Rome itself cannot be considered a true church or part of the one true church. In fact, Rome gives expression to the spirit of antichrist.
Here again is Calvin's ability to see with both eyes. In some Roman communities he was sure there were true believers; in that sense they are churches. Even major distortions of truth and failures with respect to grace do not necessarily mean there are no believers in the community.
The truth is that the heart may be regenerated while the head is not finally cleansed. Calvin appears to have thought that some of them were in fact true believers, however inconsistent theologically and perhaps intimidated personally they were. He understood, and while he disapproved he struggled to exercise wisdom and patience. But in the end Christ was being obscured. And if Christ is obscured for long, man-centered, self industriousness, and ritualism always seems to follow in its train. That is always an explanation for the (ongoing) necessity of reformation.