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§ 99. Calvin’s Idea of the Holy Catholic Church.


During his sojourn at Strassburg, Calvin matured his views on the Church and the Sacraments, and embodied them in the fourth book of the second edition of his Institutes, which appeared in the same year as his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (1539). His ideal was high and comprehensive, far beyond what he was able to realize in the little district of Geneva. "In no respect, perhaps," says a distinguished Scotch Presbyterian scholar,648648    Principal Tulloch of the University of St. Andrews, in Luther and other Leaders of the Reformation, p. 203 (3d ed. 1883). "are the Institutes more remarkable than in a certain comprehensiveness and catholicity of tone, which to many will appear strangely associated with his name. But Calvin was far too enlightened not to recognize the grandeur of the Catholic idea which had descended through so many ages; this idea had, in truth, for such a mind as his, special attractions, and his own system mainly sought to give to the same idea a new and higher form. The narrowness and intolerance of his ecclesiastical rule did not so much spring out of the general principles laid down in the Institutes, as from his special interpretation and application of these principles."

When Paul was a prisoner in Rome, chained to a heathen soldier, and when Christianity was confined to a small band of humble believers scattered through a hostile world, he described to the Ephesians his sublime conception of the Church as the mystical "body of Christ, the fulness of Him who filleth all in all." Yet in the same and other epistles he finds it necessary to warn the members of this holy brotherhood even against such vulgar vices as theft, intemperance, and fornication. The contradiction is only apparent, and disappears in the distinction between the ideal and the real, the essential and the phenomenal, the Church as it is in the mind of Christ and the Church as it is in the masses of nominal Christians.

The same apparent contradiction we find in Calvin, in Luther, and other Reformers. They cherished the deepest respect for the holy Catholic Church of Christ, and yet felt it their duty to protest with all their might against the abuses and corruptions of the actual Church of their age, and especially against the papal hierarchy which ruled it with despotic power. We may go further back to the protest of the Hebrew Prophets against the corrupt priesthood. Christ himself, who recognized the divine economy of the history of Israel, and came to fulfil the Law and the Prophets, attacked with withering severity the self-righteousness and hypocrisy of the Scribes and Pharisees who sat in Moses’ seat, and was condemned by the high priest and the Jewish hierarchy to the death of the cross. These scriptural antecedents help very much to understand and to justify the course of the Reformers.

Nothing can be more truly Catholic than Calvin’s description of the historic Church. It reminds one of the finest passages in St. Cyprian and St. Augustin. After explaining the meaning of the article of the Apostles’ Creed on the holy Catholic Church, as embracing not only the visible Church, but all God’s elect, living and departed, he thus speaks of the visible or historic Catholic Church:649649    Inst. IV. ch. I. § 4; Comp. §§ 2 and 3.


"As our present design is to treat of the visible Church, we may learn even from the title of mother, how useful and even necessary it is for us to know her; since there is no other way of entrance into life, unless we are conceived by her, born of her, nourished at her breast, and continually preserved under her care and government till we are divested of this mortal flesh and become I like the angels’ (Matt. 22:30). For our infirmity will not admit of our dismission from her school; we must continue under her instruction and discipline to the end of our lives. It is also to be remarked that out of her bosom there can be no hope of remission of sins, or any salvation, according to the testimony of Isaiah (37:32) and Joel (2:32); which is confirmed by Ezekiel (13:9), when he denounces that those whom God excludes from the heavenly life shalt not be enrolled among his people. So, on the contrary, those who devote themselves to the service of God are said to inscribe their names among the citizens of Jerusalem. For which reason the Psalmist says, ’Remember me, O Lord, with the favor that thou bearest unto thy people: O visit me with thy salvation, that I may see the prosperity of thy chosen, that I may rejoice in the gladness of thy nation, that I may glory with thine inheritance’ (Ps106:4, 5). In these words the paternal favor of God, and the peculiar testimony of the spiritual life, are restricted to his flock, to teach us that it is always fatally dangerous to be separated from the Church."650650    "Ut semperexitialis sit ab ecclesia discessio."


So strong are the claims of the visible Church upon us that even abounding corruptions cannot justify a secession. Reasoning against the Anabaptists and other radicals who endeavored to build up a new Church of converts directly from the Bible, without any regard to the intervening historical Church, he says:651651    · Ibid. IV. ch. 1, §§ 18, 19.


"Dreadful are those descriptions in which Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Habakkuk, and others, deplore the disorders of the Church at Jerusalem. There was such general and extreme corruption in the people, in the magistrates, and in the priests that Isaiah does not hesitate to compare Jerusalem to Sodom and Gomorrah. Religion was partly despised, partly corrupted. Their manners were generally disgraced by thefts, robberies, treacheries, murders, and similar crimes.

"Nevertheless, the Prophets on this account neither raised themselves new churches, nor built new altars for the oblation of separate sacrifices; but whatever were the characters of the people, yet because they considered that God had deposited his word among that nation, and instituted the ceremonies in which he was there worshipped, they lifted up pure hands to him even in the congregation of the impious. If they had thought that they contracted any contagion from these services, surely they would have suffered a hundred deaths rather than have permitted themselves to be dragged to them. There was nothing, therefore, to prevent their departure from them, but the desire of preserving the unity of the Church.

"But if the holy Prophets were restrained by a sense of duty from forsaking the Church on account of the numerous and enormous crimes which were practiced, not by a few individuals, but almost by the whole nation, it is extreme arrogance in us, if we presume immediately to withdraw from the communion of a Church, where the conduct of all the members is not compatible either with our judgment or even with the Christian profession.

"Now what kind of an age was that of Christ and his Apostles? Yet the desperate impiety of the Pharisees, and the dissolute lives everywhere led by the people, could not prevent them from using the same sacrifices, and assembling in the same temple with others, for the public exercises of religion. How did this happen, but from a knowledge that the society of the wicked could not contaminate those who, with pure consciences, united with them in the same solemnities.

"If any one pay no deference to the Prophets and the Apostles, let him at least acquiesce in the authority of Christ. Cyprian has excellently remarked: ’Although tares, or impure vessels, are found in the Church, yet this is not a reason why we should withdraw from it. It only behooves us to labor that we may be the wheat, and to use our utmost endeavors and exertions that we may be vessels of gold or of silver. But to break in pieces the vessels of earth belongs to the Lord alone, to whom a rod of iron is also given. Nor let any one arrogate to himself what is the exclusive province of the Son of God, by pretending to fan the floor, clear away the chaff, and separate all the tares by the judgment of man. This is proud obstinacy, and sacrilegious presumption, originating in a corrupt frenzy.’

"Let these two points, then, be considered as decided: first, that he who voluntarily deserts the external communion of the Church where the Word of God is preached, and the sacraments are administered, is without any excuse; secondly, that the faults either of few persons or of many form no obstacles to a due profession of our faith in the use of the ceremonies instituted by God; because the pious conscience is not wounded by the unworthiness of any other individual, whether he be a pastor or a private person; nor are the mysteries less pure and salutary to a holy and upright man, because they are received at the same time by the impure."


How, then, with such high churchly views, could Calvin justify his separation from the Roman Church in which he was born and trained? He vindicated his position in the Answer to Sadolet, from which we have given large extracts.652652    See § 91, pp. 404 sqq. He did it more fully in his masterly work, "On the Necessity of Reforming the Church," which, "in the name of all who wish Christ to reign," he addressed to the Emperor Charles V. and the Diet to be assembled at Speier in February, 1544. It is replete with weighty arguments and accurate learning, and by far one of the ablest controversial books of that age.653653    Supplex exhortatio ad Caesarem Carolum V. de necessitate reformandae Ecclesiae, 1543, in Opera, VI. 453-534. English Version by Henry Beveridge, Calvin’s Tracts, I. 123-237. The Strassburg editors call it a "libellus et ab argumenti gravitate et a stili elegantia prae caeteris commendandus, hodieque lectu dignissimus." Proleg., p. xxviii. Calvin wrote this book at the request of Bucer, who urged him to do so in a letter of Oct. 25, 1543. It appeared also in French. The following is a passage bearing upon this point:654654    Opera, VI. 518 sqq.; Beveridge, l.c., 211 sqq. Compare the Institutes, IV. ch. II. §§ 6-12.


"The last and principal charge which they bring against us is, that we have made a schism in the Church. And here they fiercely maintain against us, that for no reason is it lawful to break the unity of the Church. How far they do us injustice the books of our authors bear witness. Now, however, let them take this brief reply—that we neither dissent from the Church, nor are aliens from her communion. But, as by this specious name of Church, they are wont to cast dust in the eyes even of persons otherwise pious and right-hearted, I beseech your Imperial Majesty, and you, Most Illustrious Princes, first, to divest yourselves of all prejudice, that you may give an impartial ear to our defence; secondly, not to be instantly terrified on hearing the name of Church, but to remember that the Prophets and Apostles had, with the pretended Church of their days, a contest similar to that which you see us have in the present day with the Roman pontiff and his whole train. When they, by the command of God, inveighed freely against idolatry, superstition, and the profanation of the temple, and its sacred rites, against the carelessness and lethargy of priests,—and against the general avarice, cruelty, and licentiousness, they were constantly met with the objection which our opponents have ever in their mouths—that by dissenting from the common opinion, they violated the unity of the Church. The ordinary government of the Church was then vested in the priests. They had not presumptuously arrogated it to themselves, but God had conferred it upon them by his law. It would occupy too much time to point out all the instances. Let us, therefore, be contented with a single instance, in the case of Jeremiah.

"He had to do with the whole college of priests, and the arms with which they attacked him were these: ’Come, and let us devise devices against Jeremiah; for the law shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet’ (Jer. 18:18). They had among them a high priest, to reject whose judgment was a capital crime, and they had the whole order to which God himself had committed the government of the Jewish Church concurring with them. If the unity of the Church is violated by him, who, instructed solely by Divine truth, opposes himself to ordinary authority, the Prophet must be a schismatic; because, not at all deterred by such menaces from warring with the impiety of the priests, he steadily persevered.

"That the eternal truth of God preached by the Prophets and Apostles, is on our side, we are prepared to show, and it is indeed easy for any man to perceive. But all that is done is to assail us with this battering-ram, ’Nothing can excuse withdrawal from the Church.’ We deny out and out that we do so. With what, then, do they urge us? With nothing more than this, that to them belongs the ordinary government of the Church. But how much better right had the enemies of Jeremiah to use this argument? To them, at all events, there still remained a legal priesthood, instituted by God; so that their vocation was unquestionable. Those who in the present day have the name of prelates, cannot prove their vocation by any laws, human or divine. Be it, however, that in this respect both are on a footing, still, unless they previously convict the holy Prophet of schism, they will prove nothing against us by that specious title of Church.

"I have thus mentioned one Prophet as an example. But all the others declare that they had the same battle to fight—wicked priests endeavoring to overwhelm them by a perversion of this term Church. And how did the Apostles act? Was it not necessary for them, in professing themselves the servants of Christ, to declare war upon the synagogue ? And yet the office and dignity of the priesthood were not then lost. But it will be said that, though the Prophets and Apostles dissented from wicked priests in doctrine, they still cultivated communion with them in sacrifices and prayers. I admit they did, provided they were not forced into idolatry. But which of the Prophets do we read of as having ever sacrificed in Bethel? Which of the faithful, do we suppose, communicated in impure sacrifices, when the temple was polluted by Antiochus, and profane rites were introduced into it?

"On the whole, we conclude that the servants of God never felt themselves obstructed by this empty title of Church, when it was put forward to support the reign of impiety. It is not enough, therefore, simply to throw out the name of Church, but judgment must be used to ascertain which is the true Church, and what is the nature of its unity. And the thing necessary to be attended to, first of all, is, to beware of separating the Church from Christ, its Head. When I say Christ, I include the doctrine of his gospel which he sealed with his blood. Our adversaries, therefore, if they would persuade us that they are the true Church must, first of all, show that the true doctrine of God is among them; and this is the meaning of what we often repeat, viz. that the uniform characteristics of a well-ordered Church are the preaching of sound doctrine, and the pure administration of the Sacraments. For, since Paul declares (Eph. 2:20) that the Church is ’built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets,’ it necessarily follows that any church not resting on this foundation must immediately fall.

"I come now to our opponents.

"They, no doubt, boast in lofty terms that Christ is on their side. As soon as they exhibit him in their word we will believe it, but not sooner. They, in the same way, insist on the term Church. But where, we ask, is that doctrine which Paul declares to be the only foundation of the Church? Doubtless, your Imperial Majesty now sees that there is a vast difference between assailing us with the reality and assailing us only with the name of Church. We are as ready to confess as they are that those who abandon the Church, the common mother of the faithful, the ’pillar and ground of the truth,’ revolt from Christ also; but we mean a Church which, from incorruptible seed, begets children for immortality, and, when begotten, nourishes them with spiritual food (that seed and food being the Word of God), and which, by its ministry, preserves entire the truth which God deposited in its bosom. This mark is in no degree doubtful, in no degree fallacious, and it is the mark which God himself impressed upon his Church, that she might be discerned thereby. Do we seem unjust in demanding to see this mark? Wherever it exists not, no face of a Church is seen. If the name, merely, is put forward, we have only to quote the well-known passage of Jeremiah, ’Trust ye not in lying words, saying, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, are these’ (Jer. 7:4). Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?’ (Jer. 7:11).

"In like manner, the unity of the Church, such as Paul describes it, we protest we hold sacred, and we denounce anathema against all who in any way violate it. The principle from which Paul derives unity is, that there is ’one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all,’ who hath called us into one hope (Eph. 4:4–6). Therefore, we are one body and one spirit, as is here enjoined, if we adhere to God only, i.e. be bound to each other by the tie of faith. We ought, moreover, to remember what is said in another passage, ’that faith cometh by the word of God.’ Let it, therefore, be a fixed point, that a holy unity exists amongst us, when, consenting in pure doctrine, we are united in Christ alone. And, indeed, if concurrence in any kind of doctrine were sufficient, in what possible way could the Church of God be distinguished from the impious factions of the wicked? Wherefore, the Apostle shortly after adds, that the ministry was instituted ’for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God: that we be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, but speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, who is the Head, even Christ’ (Eph. 4:12–15). Could he more plainly comprise the whole unity of the Church in a holy agreement in true doctrine, than when he calls us back to Christ and to faith, which is included in the knowledge of him, and to obedience to the truth? Nor is any lengthened demonstration of this needed by those who believe the Church to be that sheepfold of which Christ alone is the Shepherd, and where his voice only is heard, and distinguished from the voice of strangers. And this is confirmed by Paul, when he prays for the Romans, ’The God of patience and consolation grant you to be of the same mind one with another, according to Christ Jesus; that, ye may with one accord and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rom. 15:5, 6).

"Let our opponents, then, in the first instance, draw near to Christ, and then let them convict us of schism, in daring to dissent from them in doctrine. But, since I have made it plain that Christ is banished from their society, and the doctrine of his gospel exterminated, their charge against us simply amounts to this, that we adhere to Christ in preference to them. For what man, pray, will believe that those who refuse to be led away from Christ and his truth, in order to deliver themselves into the power of men, are thereby schismatics, and deserters from the communion of the Church?

"I certainly admit that respect is to be shown to priests, and that there is great danger in despising ordinary authority. If, then, they were to say, that we are not at our own hand to resist ordinary authority, we should have no difficulty in subscribing to the sentiment. For we are not so rude as not to see what confusion must arise when the authority of rulers is not respected. Let pastors, then, have their due honor—an honor, however, not derogatory in any degree to the supreme authority of Christ, to whom it behooves them and every man to be subject. For God declares, by Malachi, that the government of the Israelitish Church was committed to the priests, under the condition that they should faithfully fulfil the covenant made with them, viz. that ’their lips should keep knowledge,’ and expound the law to the people (Mal. 2:7). When the priests altogether failed in this condition, he declares, that, by their perfidy, the covenant was abrogated and made null. Pastors are mistaken if they imagine that they are invested with the government of the Church on any other terms than that of being ministers and witnesses of the truth of God. As long, therefore, as, in opposition to the law and to the nature of their office, they eagerly wage war with the truth of God, let them not arrogate to themselves a power which God never bestowed, either formerly on priests, or now on bishops, on any other terms than those which have been mentioned."


When the Romanists demanded miracles from the Reformers as a test of their innovations, Calvin replied that this was "unreasonable; for we forgo no new gospel, but retain the very same, whose truth was confirmed by all the miracles ever wrought by Christ and the Apostles. The opponents have this advantage over us, that they confirm their faith by continual miracles even to this day. But they allege miracles which are calculated to unsettle a mind otherwise well established; for they are frivolous and ridiculous, or vain and false. Nor, if they were ever so preternatural, ought they to have any weight in opposition to the truth of God, since the name of God ought to be sanctified in all places and at all times, whether by miraculous events or by the common order of nature."655655    Dedication of his Institutes to Francis I.

Luther had the same Catholic Church feeling, and gave strong expression to it in his writings against the radicals, and in a letter to the Margrave of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia (1532), in which he says: "It is dangerous and terrible to hear or believe anything against the unanimous testimony of the entire holy Christian Church as held from the beginning for now over fifteen hundred years in all the world."656656    Briefe, De Wett’s ed. IV. 354. Still more striking is Luther’s judgment on the Roman Church (in his book against the Anabaptists): "Ich sage, dass unter dem Papst die wahre Christenheit ist; ja der rechte Ausbund der Christenheit, und viel frommer grosser Heiligen." Werke, XXVI. 257, Erlangen ed. Möhler (in his Symbolik, pp. 421, 437) sees in such expressions so many self-refutations of the Reformers in separating from the Catholic Church, and forgets that they were cast out with curses and anathemas. And yet he asserted the right of conscience and private judgment at Worms against popes and Councils, because he deemed it "unsafe and dangerous to do anything against the conscience bound in the Word of God."



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