Historical mixed media figure of John Calvin produced by artist/historian George S. Stuart and photographed by Peter d’Aprix: from the George S. Stuart Gallery of Historical Figures archive [Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]
This is an installment of a series of replies (see the Introduction and Master List) to much of Book IV (Of the Holy Catholic Church) of Institutes of the Christian Religion, by early Protestant leader John Calvin (1509-1564). I utilize the public domain translation of Henry Beveridge, dated 1845, from the 1559 edition in Latin; available online. Calvin’s words will be in blue. All biblical citations (in my portions) will be from RSV unless otherwise noted.
Related reading from yours truly:
Biblical Catholic Answers for John Calvin (2010 book: 388 pages)
A Biblical Critique of Calvinism (2012 book: 178 pages)
Biblical Catholic Salvation: “Faith Working Through Love” (2010 book: 187 pages; includes biblical critiques of all five points of “TULIP”)
1. The church now to be considered. With her God has deposited whatever is necessary to faith and good order. A summary of what is contained in this Book. Why it begins with the Church.
In the last Book, it has been shown, that by the faith of the gospel Christ becomes ours, and we are made partakers of the salvation and eternal blessedness procured by him. But as our ignorance and sloth (I may add, the vanity of our mind) stand in need of external helps, by which faith may be begotten in us, and may increase and make progress until its consummation,
Good emphasis on the progressive element of faith, or sanctification . . .
God, in accommodation to our infirmity, has added such helps, and secured the effectual preaching of the gospel, by depositing this treasure with the Church. He has appointed pastors and teachers, by whose lips he might edify his people (Eph. 4:11); he has invested them with authority, and, in short, omitted nothing that might conduce to holy consent in the faith,
What “the faith” is, was, of course, the very matter under dispute between Catholics and the new revolutionary Protestants.
and to right order. In particular, he has instituted sacraments, which we feel by experience to be most useful helps in fostering and confirming our faith. For seeing we are shut up in the prison of the body, and have not yet attained to the rank of angels, God, in accommodation to our capacity, has in his admirable providence provided a method by which, though widely separated, we might still draw near to him.
But of course, Calvin (by what authority, I ask?) ditched five sacraments and (again, by what authority?) redefined the two he retained.
Wherefore, due order requires that we first treat of the Church, of its Government, Orders, and Power; next, of the Sacraments; and, lastly, of Civil Government;—at the same time guarding pious readers against the corruptions of the Papacy, by which Satan has adulterated all that God had appointed for our salvation.
Ah! Gratuitous, polemical anti-Catholicism wasn’t long to make its appearance in this book, either.
I will begin with the Church, into whose bosom God is pleased to collect his children, not only that by her aid and ministry they may be nourished so long as they are babes and children, but may also be guided by her maternal care until they grow up to manhood, and, finally, attain to the perfection of faith.
“Perfection of faith” is a very Catholic-sounding notion as well: one that is lost by many current-day Calvinists.
What God has thus joined, let not man put asunder (Mark 10:9): to those to whom he is a Father, the Church must also be a mother. This was true not merely under the Law, but even now after the advent of Christ; since Paul declares that we are the children of a new, even a heavenly Jerusalem (Gal. 4:26).
Indeed the Church is a “Mother” (how often does on hear that description among Protestants today!?) But by removing infallible, binding authority from the Church, and by arbitrarily and selectively dissenting from the historic Christian, Catholic Church, Calvin is radically inconsistent.
2. In what sense the article of the Creed concerning the Church is to be understood. Why we should say, “I believe the Church,” not “I believe in the Church.” The purport of this article. Why the Church is called Catholic or Universal.
When in the Creed we profess to believe the Church, reference is made not only to the visible Church of which we are now treating, but also to all the elect of God, including in the number even those who have departed this life.
The communion of saints . . . Catholics believe in the notion of the “elect” as well.
And, accordingly, the word used is “believe,” because oftentimes no difference can be observed between the children of God and the profane, between his proper flock and the untamed herd.
Sinners in the Church is a thing that Calvin was well aware of. He was not a Puritan in the popular sense of wanting to sweep out every person from the Church who is the least bit sinful; as if there can be a totally pure assembly of professed Christians on this earth, comprised, as they all are, of sinners.
The particle in is often interpolated, but without any probable ground. I confess, indeed, that it is the more usual form, and is not unsupported by antiquity, since the Nicene Creed, as quoted in Ecclesiastical History, adds the preposition. At the same time, we may perceive from early writers, that the expression received without controversy in ancient times was to believe “the Church,” and not “in the Church.”
This is an interesting point and historical linguistic question. The former has to do more with authority; the latter (at least in English) seemingly with more abstract ecclesiology: having a doctrine of the Church at all in the first place, rather than, e.g., an extreme version of “Bible Alone” as the rule of faith. Protestant historian Philip Schaff, in his book, Creeds of Christendom (p. 28; footnote 55) noted that the Greek version of the Nicene Creed had “in” but that Latin and English versions mostly omitted the “in.” That’s fine with Catholics, because omitting “in” would appear to emphasize the high authority of the universal, (i.e., catholic) Church, which makes more sense, since the ancients (unlike many Protestants today) understood and took for granted that the any Christian would believe in “the Church.”
This is not only the expression used by Augustine, and that ancient writer, whoever he may have been, whose treatise, De Symboli Expositione, is extant under the name of Cyprian, but they distinctly remark that the addition of the preposition would make the expression improper, and they give good grounds for so thinking. We declare that we believe in God, both because our mind reclines upon him as true, and our confidence is fully satisfied in him. This cannot be said of the Church, just as it cannot be said of the forgiveness of sins, or the resurrection of the body.
Calvin is here utilizing on particular definition of believe (more akin to trust or faith), that goes beyond the notion of assent that is the essence of a creed, so I think he overargues a bit. This may have to do with Latin or French expression, too (the original languages of the Institutes).
Wherefore, although I am unwilling to dispute about words, yet I would rather keep to the proper form, as better fitted to express the thing that is meant, than affect terms by which the meaning is causelessly obscured. The object of the expression is to teach us, that though the devil leaves no stone unturned in order to destroy the grace of Christ, and the enemies of God rush with insane violence in the same direction, it cannot be extinguished,—the blood of Christ cannot be rendered barren, and prevented from producing fruit. Hence, regard must be had both to the secret election and to the internal calling of God, because he alone “knoweth them that are his” (2 Tim. 2:19); and as Paul expresses it, holds them as it were enclosed under his seal, although, at the same time, they wear his insignia, and are thus distinguished from the reprobate.
Of course God ultimately knows who are His. The Catholic fully agrees.
But as they are a small and despised number, concealed in an immense crowd, like a few grains of wheat buried among a heap of chaff, to God alone must be left the knowledge of his Church, of which his secret election forms the foundation.
Calvin seems to equate “elect” and “Church” here, which is a false equation, and tending towards the erroneous “invisible church” notion endemic among Protestants today. Elsewhere, he understands, however, that sinners are part of a visible, institutional Church as well. Apart from that, we agree that God alone knows who the elect are. Calvin (as I have noted in a past paper) elsewhere states that no one can know for sure who is in the elect (e.g., Inst. III, 21, 2; IV, 1, 3; IV, 1, 8; IV, 12, 9; Commentary on John 6:40) . Many Calvinists today, nevertheless, sure seem to think that they know (especially where orthodox Catholics are concerned!), and they (curiously) go against the founder of their brand of Christianity.
Nor is it enough to embrace the number of the elect in thought and intention merely. By the unity of the Church we must understand a unity into which we feel persuaded that we are truly ingrafted.
This unity is doctrinal and institutional as well as spiritual, and that was a great truth that the “Reformation” spurned, by espousing institutional schism and fostering (by false first premises on authority) the very sectarianism and denominationalism that both Luther and Calvin always derided as absurd and scandalous. They didn’t seem to realize the connection between first principles (sola Scriptura, private judgment, denial of an infallible Church and councils and popes, supremacy of the individual conscience even over against the Church in instances of disagreement) and how folks consistently acted on and applied these first principles.
For unless we are united with all the other members under Christ our head, no hope of the future inheritance awaits us.
A striking assertion of profound unity . . .
Hence the Church is called Catholic or Universal (August. Ep. 48), for two or three cannot be invented without dividing Christ; and this is impossible.
Denominations are thus ruled out. Why, then, are they so prevalent (to put it lightly) in Protestantism? Even Calvinists have many sub-denominations that would have been (presumably) condemned by Calvin based on this statement and many other like-minded ones.
All the elect of God are so joined together in Christ, that as they depend on one head, so they are as it were compacted into one body, being knit together like its different members; made truly one by living together under the same Spirit of God in one faith, hope, and charity, called not only to the same inheritance of eternal life, but to participation in one God and Christ.
Then one would think that Protestants could see the importance of this and get together and start eliminating competing (often contradictory) denominations. So far, they mainly seem to do that as they become theologically liberal and thus have more in common with other liberals who believe less and less as they do; hence the ease of uniting in liberal bliss.
For although the sad devastation which everywhere meets our view may proclaim that no Church remains, let us know that the death of Christ produces fruit, and that God wondrously preserves his Church, while placing it as it were in concealment. Thus it was said to Elijah, “Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel” (1 Kings 19:18).
Calvin ends with the “remnant ecclesiology” that suggests an invisible church. This is a direct frontal attack on the Catholic Church. That irrational and unbiblical and unhistorical hostility of Calvin’s will be dealt with over and over again in the course of this critique.