Tag Archives: Alight

More on Calvin: Marks of the Church and Fighting Nicely

That’s “more on Calvin,” not “moron Calvin”! I want to talk more about that in a moment, but first I want to share something from Calvin that I read this morning.

Marks of the Church

As you may have noticed several times in my series on the ecclesiology of the Reformers (begin here), one way that many Reformers tried to identify the true Church was to identify marks (or nota) that characterized the true Church. Luther is generally said to have identified two marks of the church (the Word rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered), but he actually identified seven. Calvin also focused on Word and sacrament, but he nuanced them a little differently and his Reformed heirs added a third, church discipline (see here for a modern defense of this triad). Some of Calvin’s heirs in our own generation have identified “Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.” If we go back to the early church, we see the Nicene Creed identified four marks: One, holy, catholic, and apostolic. The activity of identifying marks has a long history!

With that background, here is an excerpt from a blog I read this morning, containing quotes from Calvin’s Institute of the Christian Religion:

It is always disastrous to leave the church.” The words are from John Calvin…

Clearly, Calvin knew churches had problems. But he warns against leaving simply because there are problems.

“The pure ministry of the Word and pure mode of celebrating the sacraments are, as we say, sufficient pledge and guarantee that we may safely embrace as church any society in which both these marks exist. The principle extends to the point that we must not reject it so long as it retains them, even if it otherwise swarms with many faults. . . . But I say we must not thoughtlessly forsake the church because of any petty dissensions.” (4.1.12) He plainly says those who seek a church “besmirched with no blemish” are looking in vain (4.1.13) but we must remember that it “is no less true that the Lord is daily at work in smoothing out wrinkles and cleansing spots” and from this “it follows that the church’s holiness is not yet complete.” (4.1.17) [Emphasis added by Louis McBride at Baker Book House Church Connection.]

–> To read the rest, click here <–

My observation today about this activity of identifying marks is modest: It seems to me that we sometimes identify marks of the true Church based on our dissatisfaction with other branches of Christianity as much as on a careful reading of Scripture. In short, our marks tend to be somewhat reactionary.

We even see this, I think, in the two marks of the church that Luther and Calvin featured: Word and sacrament. What did Luther and Calvin like least about the Roman Catholic Church? I’m guessing it would be hard to find two better answers than (a) the Roman Catholic Church’s failure to proclaim the Word faithfully and clearly in the vernacular languages and (b) its understanding of sacraments such as the mass.

Let me hasten to assure you: I strongly agree that faithful proclamation of the Scriptures and biblical practice of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are central marks of a healthy church. But it is interesting to note that the Roman Catholics had an important historical mark in their favor as well: the true Church was “one.” This was important to them in part because the Reformers threatened it. And the Anabaptists, while agreeing on the importance of right observance of the sacraments, identified the true Church differently than the magisterial Reformers did because they disagreed on the correct observance of baptism. Each stream of the Reformation emphasized different marks of the Church (and thus identified the true Church differently) based in part on their disagreements with the other streams.

We do that yet today. Let me give two related examples. Here is the first: In a recent edition of the mission paper Alight, an “entirely Columbian movement of churches” is described.1 Despite having “no help from foreign missionaries and… no knowledge of the Anabaptists,” this movement believes and practices “virtually all of what conservative Mennonites do.” In particular, they “are nonresistant, nonconformed to the world, and with some slight variation practice all seven of what we call ordinances. Their churches are disciplined, and holiness of life is their hallmark. The church is zealous in evangelism.” Again, let me hasten to reassure you: I also rejoice when I hear of other Christians who share my convictions (see here for a recent example). But I do want to observe that the list above sounds suspiciously like another list of marks of the true Church. And again, nonresistance, nonconformity, and seven ordinances are beliefs that conservative Anabaptists hold in opposition to many other church traditions. The danger is that forming church marks in opposition to others is likely to produce an imbalanced set of marks of the true Church.

My second example affirms the first. A friend recently told me this: “When we put an addition on at [our church building], the contractor who did the concrete work was Amish (or Beachy…not sure). He wanted to know whether we practiced the 7 ordinances and if so, we’d get a discount on his work.” For this contractor, clearly, a mark of the true Church is that it practices seven ordinances.

In saying all the above I do not mean to criticize the task of identifying the true Church. I do think it is important to identify specific marks of the true Church–and also marks of a healthy church, as one example above puts it. But let’s honestly evaluate the marks that our own church traditions have emphasized, comparing them with marks identified in other traditions and with Scripture. This can help us achieve a more biblical balance.

What might Paul say about the marks of the true Church? That’s a topic for another post (or book!), but I’ll say that my recent reading of Galatians has made one point crystal clear: We will never identify the Church correctly until we first identify the gospel correctly.

Fighting Nicely

When I was a boy, I used to sometimes fight with my brothers. (Still do!) Our father sometimes interrupted our squabbles with the admonition, “Fight nice!” I think this is wise advice not only for boys, but also for Christians relating to Christians in other denominations and church traditions.

After my last blog post on Calvin (see here), one good-hearted friend sent me a brief response:

“Anabaptists demonstrate a total lack of intelligence. There is nothing to be learned from their ideas.” — John Calvin  🙂

[Note: See the update at the end of this post for a bit more context.]

I pondered a while, did a bit of research, and responded thus (abridged and lightly edited):

I think you just posted in fun, so I don’t want to attribute unkind motives to you. But I have to ask, do you think your comment reflects a Golden Rule approach? Does it give a fair and balanced representation of Calvin or of those who find him of value? Did you provide a source to (a) prove that your quote is accurate and (b) provide context for Calvin’s words?

I did a bit of searching online for your quote this morning. Interestingly, the only place I’m seeing that exact quote is on Anabaptist websites that are anti-Calvin. As best as I can tell, the source for the attribution of these two sentences to Calvin seems to come from the headline of this blog: http://modern-parables.blogspot.com/

Interestingly, I also find the same sentences on this website: http://www.anabaptistnetwork.com/node/448  But notice how this website (more scholarly than the former) clarifies that only a few of the words are actually directly from Calvin, and that even those words were spoken in a very specific context and not as a general statement about Anabaptists:

With reference to their views on oath-taking, the Genevan Reformer John Calvin said the Anabaptists demonstrate a “total lack of intelligence.”43 There is nothing to be learned from them or their ideas.

It looks like the blogger above (or someone before her) did a cut-and-paste from this scholarly website, deleted the quotation marks, deleted a few words near the end (“them or”) in order to make it fit on her headline, and falsely attributed the whole to Calvin. Ouch!2

The Anabaptist Network website helpfully includes a footnote that gives a source for the “total lack of intelligence” phrase. It comes, apparently, from Calvin’s Harmony of the Gospels. You can read it here: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom31.ix.xlviii.html  Here is the extended passage where Calvin discusses Jesus’ words about oaths (Matt. 5:33-37), with the quoted phrase highlighted (it is slightly different than above because it is a different translation of Calvin’s Latin or French, but I’m quite certain it’s the source for our mysterious “quote”):

Many have been led by the phrase, not at all, to adopt the false notion, that every kind of swearing is condemned by Christ. Some good men have been driven to this extreme rigor by observing the unbridled licentiousness of swearing, which prevailed in the world. The Anabaptists, too, have blustered a great deal, on the ground, that Christ appears to give no liberty to swear on any occasion, because he commands, Swear not at all But we need not go beyond the immediate context to obtain the exposition: for he immediately adds, neither by heaven, nor by the earth Who does not see that those kinds of swearing were added by way of exposition, to explain the former clause more fully by specifying a number of cases? The Jews had circuitous or indirect ways of swearing: and when they swore by heaven, or by earth, or by the altar (Matthew 23:18), they reckoned it to be next to nothing; and, as one vice springs from another, they defended, under this pretense, any profanation of the name of God that was not openly avowed.

To meet this crime, our Lord declares that they must not swear at all, either in this or that way, either by heaven, or by the earth Hence we conclude, that the particle, at all, relates not to the substance, but to the form, and means, “neither directly nor indirectly.” It would otherwise have been superfluous to enumerate those kinds: and therefore the Anabaptists betray not only a rage for controversy, but gross ignorance, when they obstinately press upon us a single word, and pass over, with closed eyes, the whole scope of the passage. Is it objected, that Christ permits no swearing? I reply: What the expounder of the law says, must be viewed in connection with its design. His statement amounts to this, that there are other ways of “taking the name of God in vain,” besides perjury; and, therefore, that we ought to refrain from allowing ourselves the liberty of unnecessary swearing: for, when there are just reasons to demand it, the law not only permits, but expressly commands us to swear. Christ, therefore, meant nothing more than this, that all oaths are unlawful, which in any way abuse and profane the sacred name of God, for which they ought to have had the effect of producing a deeper reverence.

I’m not saying that Calvin was right on this point about oath-taking (although his emphasis on context is salutary), but I think we owe him Golden Rule justice and kindness in quoting him accurately and in context.

So… 🙂  Again, I think you were just commenting in good humor, and I thank you for starting me on a fascinating rabbit trail.

My friend and I proceeded to enjoy a good conversation about Calvin and Anabaptists. My friend shared his concerns, including this:

It does seem that reading Calvin has seen a resurgence among some youth today, I suspect maybe in reaction to postmodernistic doctrinal squishiness and a desire for hard propositional truths. We have several young men in our community who have become avid disciples of Calvin and claim to have a much deeper, authentic, and alive relationship with God as a result. If that is true, well, praise the Lord!

What saddens me though is that the applications they have made from 5 point Calvinism have led them to overemphasize (in my opinion) overemphasize God’s justice and wrath, and they have convinced themselves that there is nothing they can do to choose God, only God can choose them and anything good they do is only because God is making them do it.  Worse, they see God’s justice and wrath towards sin as normative for human responses toward other humans who threaten their well being, property, security, and lives.

It may be unfair to blame Calvin or his followers for the fact that these youth have lost their belief in non-violence, but I think there is a link between a theology of a “macho” muscular God who crushes all His enemies and metes out judgement and wrath towards sin and a personal loss of conviction that violence in protection of oneself and ones property is not for the believer. Maybe Calvin isn’t the problem here but his theology doesn’t seem to help the situation much.

I told my friend that I share some of his concerns (abridged and lightly edited):

I agree that the voices of the New Calvinists are a mixed blessing. I certainly have found them a blessing in many ways, but I have not been tempted by the non-nonviolent elements of their teachings. It saddens me when I hear D.A. Carson (whom I respect deeply in many other ways) celebrate how his son is in the military, and it saddens me even more to hear that some Anabaptist youth are losing their nonviolent convictions…

I would agree that “Calvin probably doesn’t deserve all the blame” for some Anabaptists today losing their nonresistance. For one thing, a lot of Calvinists today believe and emphasize things quite differently from what Calvin himself did. Also, my favorite book in support of our nonviolent position is one written by a Reformed professor who moves in the circles of John Piper, John MacArthur, and others: Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence, by Preston Sprinkle. So, believe it or not, and like it or not, Calvinist soteriology can exist alongside a nonviolent position. Perhaps you could introduce your youth friends to Sprinkle’s book?…

If only we could learn what is good from each other without either abandoning truths we already possess or blacklisting those who disagree with us on a few key points! The fact is, most of my scholarly biblical studies resources (three quarter?) were written by Calvinists. To cut myself off from their voices would be very costly.

All that to say that, though I most certainly agree that vigorous debate on matters like nonresistance is essential, let’s–in the words of my dad–be sure that we “fight nice.” Yes, Paul, did say he wished the pro-circumcision party would castrate themselves (Gal. 5:12), but at least he made sure he had his facts straight before he said it! In doctrinal debates and otherwise, kind words are as important as kind hands. And love of neighbor is most certainly one mark of members of the true Church.

Do you have thoughts on marks of the true Church or on fighting nicely? Share them in the comments below!  (And if my good-hearted friend wants to identify himself, I’ll leave that up to him. 🙂  We did discuss the possibility of me turning our conversation into a blog post.)

Update: After writing this post, I looked again at Timothy George’s book Theology of the Reformers. I was reminded that, while Calvin did not say the quote attributed to him above, he did say other things against the Anabaptists that were equally disparaging. George: “Calvin’s epithets were no less pejorative [than Luther’s]: “fanatics,” “deluded,” “scatterbrains,” “asses,” “scoundrels,” “mad dogs.” (George, Timothy [2013-09-01]. Theology of the Reformers [Kindle Locations 5805-5806]. B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Source: John Calvin, Treatises Against the Anabaptists and Against the Libertines, ed. Benjamin W. Farley [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982], 30.)

Unfortunately, this kind of language was par for the course in Reformation times. George again: “Caspar Schwenckfeld, one of the spiritualist reformers, observed that on the basis of the Bible “the papists damn the Lutherans, the Lutherans damn the Zwinglians, the Zwinglians damn the Anabaptists, and the Anabaptists damn all of the others” (Kindle Locations 3772-3774).

Given this cacophony of cursing, Calvin’s “quote” above sounds very believable. Hopefully we today can be better listeners and kinder speakers.


  1. Witmer, Dallas. “Working With God in Columbia.” Alight, Vol. 27, No. 4. October, November, December 2014. Christian Light Publications. This article was referenced in the January 2015 Calvary Messenger, where Ronald J. Miller emphasizes most of the same points I quote here.
  2. I have contacted this blogger, but so far have not received a response.

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