Blog 171: 4.2.1 - 4.2.5
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 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?