Calvin on the “Marks of the Church”

For the second Protestant Confession to examine, it seems sensible to go for the who’s who and what’s what of Reformed Christianity, Mr. John Calvin himself. He wrote the 1559 French Confession of Faith [.DOC], and there’s much in it to admire. To wit:

XXV. Now as we enjoy Christ only through the gospel, we believe that the order of the Church, established by his authority, ought to be sacred and inviolable, and that, therefore, the Church can not exist without pastors for instruction, whom we should respect and reverently listen to, when they are properly called and exercise their office faithfully. Not that God is bound to such aid and subordinate means, but because it pleases him to govern us by such restraints. In this we detest all visionaries who would like, so far as lies in their power, to destroy the ministry and preaching of the Word and sacraments.

While Catholics dispute that Christ is enjoyed only through the (written) Gospel [we would acknowledge Sacred Tradition, and at least hints of Himself are enjoyed in other ways, like the natural law and Creation], and understand “sacraments” to include more than Calvin himself does, the rest of this article is music to our ears. The sentence I’ve underlined is particularly important, because much of the monergist-synergist debate comes down to monergists saying God doesn’t need us, and synergists saying, “but He uses us anyways!”

XXVI. We believe that no one ought to seclude himself and be contented to be alone; but that all jointly should keep and maintain the union of the Church, and submit to the public teaching, and to the yoke of Jesus Christ, wherever God shall have established a true order of the Church, even if the magistrates and their edicts are contrary to it. For if they do not take part in it, or if they separate themselves from it, they do contrary to the Word of God.

Catholics absolutely believe all of this. But Calvin’s presented himself with a problem: he’s just forbidden splitting from the Church! But of course, he has a solution: “the Church” just means whatever John Calvin thinks it should mean.

XXVII. Nevertheless we believe that it is important to discern with care and prudence which is the true Church, for this title has been much abused. We say, then, according to the Word of God, that it is the company of the faithful who agree to follow his Word, and the pure religion which it teaches; who advance in it all their lives, growing and becoming more confirmed in the fear of God according as they feel the want of growing and pressing onward. Even although they strive continually, they can have no hope save in the remission of their sins. Nevertheless we do not deny that among the faithful there may be hypocrites and reprobates, but their wickedness can not destroy the title of the Church.

The only redeeming feature of this article is that he at least acknowledges that some weeds will be mixed in with the wheat, although he’s plenty vague on the point. (Indeed, it sounds very much like there has to be a majority-wheat for it to be the “true” Church, so be careful who you baptize, I guess!). I’m assuming here that he means only the ultimately-damned, but I’m not positive on that. He’s not really clear on at what point (or how) their wickedness “destroy[s] the title of the Church.”

The critical problem is that this centered upon the results. A church can go from being an authentic part of the Church to an inauthentic one (and back) based upon spiritual dry spells amongst the congregation… even if the message preached is the exact same. That’s the problem with the vague requirement that the real Church’s members “advance in [the word of God] all their lives.” It’s terribly subjective.

Mostly, he just defined what a Christian is, roughly. This whole article seems to say, “the Church is a group of Christians,” which isn’t even his own belief (see Article XXVI).

XXVIII. In this belief we declare that, properly speaking, there can be no Church where the Word of God is not received, nor profession made of subjection to it, nor use of the sacraments. Therefore we condemn the papal assemblies, as the pure Word of God is banished from them, their sacraments are corrupted, or falsified, or destroyed, and all superstitions and idolatries are in them. We hold, then, that all who take part in those acts, and commune in that Church, separate and cut themselves off from the body of Christ. Nevertheless, as some trace of the Church is left in the papacy, and the virtue and substance of baptism remain, and as the efficacy of baptism does not depend upon the person who administers it, we confess that those baptized in it do not need a second baptism. But, on account of its corruptions, we can not present children to be baptized in it without incurring pollution.

This one’s the kicker. When he said previously said (in Article XXVII), “according to the Word of God, that [the Church] is the company of the faithful who agree to follow his Word,” he really meant, “the faithful who agree to follow his Word as understood by John Calvin.” Because it just isn’t honest to say that “the pure Word of God is banished from” the Catholic Church.

If, however, he means that holding anything besides what is in written Scripture defies the purity of the pure word of God, he’s got some explaining to do, since later in the same article, he defends the notion that the sacraments are efficacious ex opere operato (when he says that “the efficacy of baptism does not depend upon the person who administers it”). Where does he get that from Scripture? He doesn’t – Scripture isn’t clear on this point. He gets it from the Catholic Church, which has continually held this as a tradition, most clearly against the Donatists. And by this point, there is no serious question that the only Christians we have record of believe in the very sacraments Calvin decries as idolatry and not true sacraments. Strangely, Calvin takes the concept ex opere operato, while condemning the very sacraments it was intended to describe.

It is also incomprehensible to me to argue that the Catholic Church validly baptises people into a Church cut off from the Body of Christ, but which still has “some trace of the Church” in it. It’s more unclear how a sacrament performed ex opere operatis, where the disposition of the minister is irrelevant, can confer “pollution” upon the recipient.

It should be clear that Calvin’s understanding of the Church, particularly as expressed in Article XXVIII, would exclude the entire early Church — namely, because they, like the modern Church, acknowledged authentic Apostolic tradition in addition to Scripture, and worshipped the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. If the claims “the pure Word of God is banished from them, their sacraments are corrupted, or falsified, or destroyed, and all superstitions and idolatries are in them” is accurate of one, it’s accurate of the other. Let me prove this briefly, and with just a few examples:

(1) The Didache, probably the oldest Christian document outside of the New Testament itself, is called The Teaching of the Twelve Disciples, and yet contains information in addition to Scripture. This book was held as valid (and often, even, as inspired) by the early Church. If anything plus Scripture means “the pure Word of God is banished from them,” there’s no Church until Calvin. Mind you, these aren’t even post-Apostolic Christians: much of the Didache was probably written while the Apostles were still living.

(2) Like I said earlier, Ignatius of Antioch used the Real Presence of the Eucharist as a litmus test in 107-110 A.D. to determine if someone was validly an orthodox Christian. Significantly, Calvin rejected Ignatius of Antioch’s letters as being authentic. Specifically, in his Institutes, Book I, Chapter 13, Section 29, available here, he argues:

With regard to what they pretend as to Ignatius, if they would have it to be of the least importance, let them prove that the apostles enacted laws concerning Lent, and other corruptions. Nothing can be more nauseating, than the absurdities which have been published under the name of Ignatius; and therefore, the conduct of those who provide themselves with such masks for deception is the less entitled to toleration.

So Calvin considered it impossible that Ignatius wrote his own work; and went so far as to claim that his work was fabricated to deceptively promote the Catholic Faith (in fact, he even accuses of those Catholics who appealed to Ignatius as appealing in bad faith in that last sentence). Now that we know that Ignatius did write his own work, shouldn’t that change the game somewhat? Doesn’t that prove Calvin wrong on a really significant point? Namely: what the Church looked like in 110 A.D.? (For more on this, I’d suggest Dave Armstrong’s post). While this perhaps exonerates Calvin in a way — it seems he made an honest mistake — it also should suggest that perhaps, since his premises were wrong, his conclusions might be as well?

(3) Finally, on the point of what Calvin calls “superstitions and idolatries,” I’m assuming he actually means things like prayers to the saints (which he knew well aren’t actually idolatry, since we don’t worship them).

Philip Francis Esler, in his book New Testament Theology: Communion and Community, writes this (here, pg. 209) of the pre-Nicene Church:

“Christian devotion to the apostles and martyrs, most notable Peter and Paul, exists from an early date in Rome. There is archaeological and literary evidence for a monument to Peter on the Vatican Hill from as early as the mid-second-century CE. […] About a century later, we find a well-developed devotion to Peter and Paul at the catacomb near the Via Appia that was believed to contain their remains, now located under the church of San Sebastiano. These date from about 260 CE to the time of Constantine. […] Excavations carried out in 1915 revealed a large number of graffiti containing requests directly to the two saints jointly.”

Even prior to 1915, we find Henry Donald Maurice Spence-Jones, an Anglican (if you couldn’t tell from that name — he was the Anglican Vicar and Rural Dean of St. Pancras and the Examining Chaplain to the Lord Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol, to be precise) saying the same thing. This is from his 1911 book, The early Christians in Rome, (available here – pg. 309), describing the same period of anti-Christian persecutions:

The first and most prominent feature in the life of the Christians of the first three centuries which the inscriptions of the catacombs make clear to us was their intense conviction of the reality of the future life.

The epitaphs speak of the dead as though they were still living. They talk to the dead. They felt that there was a communion still existing with them—between them and the survivors—a communion carried on under new conditions, and finding its
consolation in incessant mutual prayer.

They were assured that the soul of the departed was united with the saints—that it was with God, and in the enjoyment of peace, happiness, rest; so often the little epitaph breathes a humble and loving prayer that they, the survivors, might soon be admitted to a participation in these blessings. Sometimes the survivors invoked the help of the prayers of the departed, since they knew that the soul of the departed lived in God and with God ; they thought that the prayers of a soul in the presence of
God would be a help—must be a help— to those whose time of trial was not yet

So if Calvin is right that this is an idolatrous superstition, then it seems that the early Church’s countless martyrs died for a sham.

Calvin’s marks of the Church are not only excessively vague, but as he seems to construe them (that a “true Church” must not venerate and pray to the saints, worship the Eucharist, or acknowledge any of the word of God beyond Sacred Scripture), they disqualify all of known Christian antiquity prior to the Reformation.

1 Comment

  1. Keep writing it, brother. I think you are correct that Calvin’s rejection of Ignatius is extremely significant. It seems that Calvin was particularly unhappy with eucharistic adoration. Somewhere he wrote, that the consecrated host, worshipped by the faithful, itself constituted “an idol”. Therefore, his doctrine of eucharistic presence is pretty muddled. On the one hand, he seems to want to affirm the Real Presence, or at least that the faithful (or at least the elect), actually receive Christ in receiving Holy Communion. OTOH, he attempts to speak of that Presence is such a way so as to eliminate the possibility of eucharistic adoration. Poor John Calvin. We should pray for him.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *