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Ecclesiology of the Reformers (5): Menno Simons

Menno Simons, had he foreseen it, would have been dumbfounded: today there are about 1.7 million people who belong to churches that bear his name. (He would have been doubly disoriented by the discovery that over 96% of them do not live in Europe!) As one of these Mennonites,  I have good reason to be curious about what Menno Simons believed about the Church.

This post continues our series on the ecclesiology of the Reformers, quoting from Timothy George’s excellent book, Theology of the Reformers. (See past posts about the ecclesiologies of Luther, Zwingli , and Calvin. See also the introduction to this series, and stay tuned for William Tyndale and my conclusions and questions.)

Perhaps because I have personal stake in the quest, I have found this the hardest post yet to prepare for this series. I’ve had to cut out so much intriguing information! To manage length somewhat, I will focus on one theme in Menno Simon’s ecclesiology: the purity of the Church. Along the way, I’ll note other themes also worth exploring.

First, I’ll let Timothy George introduce the Radical Reformation:

The Radical Reformation…, was not merely a “wing,” a side effect that revealed a more extreme form of the Reformation; it was instead a movement that gave birth to a new form of Christian faith and life. As one scholar put it, it was a “reformation of the Reformation” or “a correction of the correction of Catholicism.”1 Precisely this, together with the fact that for the most part the radicals were forced to develop their model of the Christian life outside the confines of the official churches, gave their spirituality and church life a distinctive cast. (Kindle Locations 5827-5831)

George identifies three branches of the Radical Reformation–the Anabaptists, the Spiritualists, and the Evangelical Rationalists.

Each branch of the Radical Reformation attached itself to a distinctive “root.” For the Anabaptists it was the Bible, especially the New Testament. They desired not merely to reform the church but to restore it to its pristine, apostolic purity. (Kindle Locations 5820-5822, emphasis added)

Menno’s early life and education were formative, but let’s leap ahead: What drove Menno Simons from being a Roman Catholic priest to becoming “the most outstanding leader” (George) of the Anabaptists?

Three important clusters of events and ideas are in Menno’s developing consciousness of the true church and his role in it… In 1525, the year that Grebel and Mantz were organizing the first Anabaptist congregations in Switzerland, Menno began to entertain doubts about the dogma of transubstantiation. “It occurred to me, as often as I handled the bread and wine in the mass, that they were not the flesh and blood of the Lord.” (Kindle Locations 5887-5894, emphasis added)

Menno might have quietly remained within the Roman fold had he not come to question another pillar of the established tradition, infant baptism… On March 20, 1531…, an itinerant tailor named Sicke Freerks was beheaded because he had been baptized a second time. Menno later commented, “It sounded very strange in my ears that one spoke of a second baptism.” …He began to investigate the basis for infant baptism. He examined the arguments of Luther, Bucer, Zwingli, and Bullinger but found them all lacking… Finally, he “searched the Scriptures diligently and considered the question seriously but could find nothing about infant baptism.” (Kindle Locations 5908-5917, emphasis added)

Possessed of new convictions on the Lord’s Supper and baptism, Menno nonetheless did not break with the Roman Church until he was deeply stirred by events surrounding the… violent, revolutionary kingdom of the two Jans at Münster… On March 30, 1535, a group of some three hundred violent Anabaptists captured the Old Cloister near Bolsward… On April 7 the cloister was retaken and the radicals savagely slain. Among them was Menno’s brother…

After this had transpired the blood of these people, although misled, fell so hot on my heart that I could not stand it, nor find rest in my soul… I saw that these zealous children, although in error, willingly gave their lives and their estates for their doctrine and faith. And I was one of those who disclosed to some of them the abominations of the papal system… I thought to myself—I, miserable man, what am I doing? If I continue in this way, and do not live agreeably to the Word of the Lord, according to the knowledge of the truth which I have obtained; if I do not censure to the best of my little talent the hypocrisy, the impenitent, carnal life, the erroneous baptism, the Lord’s Supper in the false service of God which the learned ones teach; if I through bodily fear do not lay bare the foundations of the truth, nor use all my powers to direct the wandering flock who would gladly do their duty if they knew it, to the true pastures of Christ—oh, how shall their shed blood, shed in the midst of transgression rise against me at the judgment of the Almighty and pronounce sentence against my poor, miserable soul! (Kindle Locations 5920-5936, emphasis added)

Let me draw two observations from this description. First, note the centrality of the Scriptures for Menno. They are, he realized, the ultimate guide both for discerning truth and for living rightly. Second, note Menno’s self-identity as a teacher. He was a teacher before he became an Anabaptist, and when he finally decided to become one, his decision was sealed by his sense that the Anabaptists needed a pastor-teacher “to direct the wandering flock… to the true pastures of Christ.”

Menno… felt a special compassion for the “poor misguided sheep” who wandered about without a shepherd. About a year after he had left the comfortable parish at Witmarsum to become an itinerant underground evangelist, …Anabaptist brethren near Groningen entreated him to accept the office of elder or chief shepherd of the brotherhood. After a time of struggling with this decision , he consented and so began “to teach and to baptize, to labor with my limited talents in the harvest field of the Lord, to assist in building up his holy city and temple and to repair the dilapidated walls.” Having been baptized earlier, Menno was now duly ordained… (Kindle Locations 5950-5956)

Menno Simons is reported to have said, …that nothing on earth was as precious to him as the church. For twenty-five years he labored throughout the Netherlands and northern Germany to establish fellowships of believers into organized congregations committed to one another and to their mission in the world. (Kindle Locations 6385-6387)

Most of those years were spent on the run for his life. And somehow, while on the run with his family, Menno wrote.

…Menno’s theology was situational; it emerged in the context of his active involvement in the life of the church… Menno never had the leisure to produce learned tomes or to develop a systematic theology. Yet he wrote with vigor and insight, drawing both on the earlier Anabaptist heritage and the wider Christian tradition but primarily on his own intensive engagement with the Scriptures. (Kindle Locations 5981-5984)

In Menno’s writing, as in his speaking, he was a teacher of the Church:

In 1540 Menno published what was to become his most influential writing…The Foundation of Christian Doctrine. In some ways this treatise is comparable to the first edition of Calvin’s Institutes, published only four years earlier. It was at once a tract for the times and a sort of catechetical instruction for new believers. (Kindle Locations 5986-5989)

The Foundation was an apology for those Anabaptists who chose the way of the cross over that of the sword… Menno’s book had little if any impact on the rulers, who continued their unabated assault against all Anabaptists. Its real influence was on the believers, who found in it a succinct summary of Anabaptist theology and churchmanship. (Kindle Locations 5998-6002)

Menno’s beliefs about the purity of the true Church were shaped by his understanding of conversion:

As long ago as 1848, the historian Max Göbel recognized that “the essential and distinguishing characteristic of this [Anabaptist] church is its great emphasis upon the actual personal conversion and regeneration of every Christian through the Holy Spirit.”2 Although Luther described himself as “born again,” and both Zwingli and Calvin commented on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, Menno placed the greatest emphasis on the necessity for the new birth: “If now you desire to have your wicked nature cleared up, and desire to be free from eternal death and damnation . . . then you must be born again.” (Kindle Locations 6029-6034)

Conversion involved both faith and repentance:

Faith was the inward appropriation of the gospel, which Menno defined as “the blessed announcement of the favor and grace of God to us, and of forgiveness of sins through Christ Jesus.” (Kindle Locations 6034-6036)

God radically transforms such a believing heart! But faith

was incomplete without the prior act of repentance… It will not “help a fig,” he averred, to be called Christians or boast of the Lord’s blood, death, merits, grace, and gospel, as long as believers were not genuinely converted from their wicked, sinful lives. (Kindle Locations 6044-6048)

If believers had the faith of penitent Zacchaeus , Menno claimed, then… “There would soon be a different and better situation because, it cannot fail, the righteous must live his faith.” (Kindle Locations 6059-6062, emphasis added)

Much could be said here about how Menno’s understanding of Scripture shaped his theology and ecclesiology. For example, his “severe pruning of the liturgical tradition of the church was based on a strict application of the principle that what the Bible does not expressly enjoin should not be permitted” (Kindle Locations 6169-6171).

It is significant that Menno quoted more from the New Testament than the Old at a ratio of 3:1… The thrust of the whole Scripture is to direct us to Christ… According to Menno, Jesus Christ really did bring something new. (Kindle Locations 6210-6213)

Thus Menno rejected the mainline reformer’s use of the Old Testament to justify infant baptism and church-state relationships.

Such topics are familiar to most amateur students of Anabaptism. But fewer people are aware of another theological topic that shaped Menno’s understanding of the church:

Menno obviously felt that his doctrine of the incarnation was worth defending in large treatises as he devoted more attention to it than to any other doctrinal concern… Menno could not allow that Christ received his human nature from Mary, else he would have been tainted with the Adamic sin that is common to all his descendants. (Kindle Locations 6325-6330, emphasis added)

More could be said here about Menno’s understanding of Adamic sin (he did not actually believe we are held guilty because of it) or of Roman Catholic and Reformed explanations for Christ’s sinlessness.

Menno set aside both of these explanations: The former elevated Mary to the status of a divine goddess, the latter split Christ into two parts, destroying the unity of his person. Menno sought to resolve the problem by pointing to the celestial origin of Christ’s entire being: “The entire Christ Jesus, both God and man, man and God, has his origin in heaven and not on earth.” (Kindle Locations 6335-6340, emphasis added)

[Menno’s] opponents… accused him of teaching a docetic Christology, the ancient heresy that Christ only appeared or seemed to be human… However…, Menno had no intention of denying the true humanity of Christ… He asserted that Christ “was truly human and not a mere phantasm… He was afflicted, hungry, thirsty, subject to suffering and death, according to the flesh.” Menno’s concern was to show how Christ remained unsullied from original sin, able to offer a perfect sacrifice on the cross for the sins of the world. (Kindle Locations 6355-6364, emphasis added)

Many Anabaptists in Menno’s own time, and most since, have rejected Menno’s understanding of the incarnation. So why is it worth mentioning in this post about ecclesiology?

…During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Menno’s doctrine had important soteriological and ecclesiological implications for Dutch Anabaptism. The crucial importance of the new birth depends on the incarnation through which believers are made partakers of the divine nature. Menno’s concept of the church as a community without spot or wrinkle, feasting at Communion on the heavenly “manna” that Jesus identified with his body (John 6:51), is also related to the miracle of the incarnation. (Kindle Locations 6374-6381, emphasis added)

If true believers share in Christ’s pure divine nature, then purity, surely, is a distinguishing mark of the true Church. Menno’s words:

They verily are not the true congregation of Christ who merely boast of his name. But they are the true congregation of Christ who are truly converted, who are born from above of God, who are of a regenerate mind by the operation of the Holy Spirit through the hearing of the divine Word, and have become the children of God, have entered into obedience to him, and live unblamably in his holy commandments, and according to his holy will with all their days, or from the moment of their call. (Kindle Locations 6390-6394, emphasis added)

Thus, with the other Anabaptists, Menno wanted to restore the Church, not merely reform it:

Unlike Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, who wanted to reform the church on the basis of the Word of God, the radical reformers were more concerned to restore the primitive church, which they believed had “fallen” or apostatized… New wine could not be stored in old wineskins. Rather the New Testament church had to be restored “according to the true apostolic rule and criterion.” (Kindle Locations 6418-6422)

Doctrinal and ethical purity marked the truth Church:

Menno’s favorite word for the church was Gemeente (cf. Gemeinde), by which he designated the living fellowship or community of believers, the true communion of saints. In his Reply to Gellius Faber Menno listed the following six characteristics by which the church is known: (1) an unadulterated, pure doctrine; (2) scriptural use of the sacramental signs; (3) obedience to the Word; (4) unfeigned, brotherly love; (5) a bold confession of God and Christ; (6) oppression and tribulation for the sake of the Lord’s Word. It is significant that four of these six marks of the church are concerned with the ethical and moral dimensions of the Christian life. (Kindle Locations 6431-6436, emphasis added)

Menno’s understandings of baptism and the Lord’s Supper also featured this focus on purity. George summarizes Menno’s doctrine of baptism in three affirmations. Here is the third:

Baptism is the public initiation of the believer into a life of radical discipleship... For Menno baptism signaled a response of obedience to the gospel, a literal imitation and initiation taken by a novice upon his entrance to the monastic order. In the monastic tradition, such a vow implied a radical break with one’s past life and the assumption of a new identity within the community, symbolized by the receiving of a new name and investiture in new garments. Baptism among the Anabaptists was symbolic of a similar radical change in identity and lifestyle. (Kindle Locations 6475-6485)

In his Foundation Menno discusses four affirmations about the Lord’s Supper. Here is George’s description of the fourth:

…The Supper was the Communion of the body and blood of Christ… With connotations of the heavenly flesh of Christ, Menno declared that in Communion Christians were made “flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone.” (Kindle Locations 6545-6550)

Menno’s emphasis on the purity of the church was related directly to his “celestial flesh” Christology and to his view of the Supper as a marriage feast or fellowship meal with the sinless Christ. As Adam had but one Eve, and Isaac but one Rebecca, and even as Christ had but one body

which was heavenly and from heaven, and was righteous and holy in all its members, so also he has but one Eve in the Spirit, but one new Rebecca, who is his spiritual body, spouse, church, bride, namely, those who are believers, the regenerate, the meek, merciful, mortified, righteous, peaceable, lovely, and obedient children in the kingdom and house of his peace; pure, chaste virgins in the spirit, holy souls, who are of his divine family and holy flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone. (Kindle Locations 6585-6591, emphasis added)

If–as all the Reformers agreed–the sacraments form the boundaries of the Church, and if it is also true–as Menno emphasized–that personal and corporate purity are intrinsic to the sacraments, then the true Church must practice church discipline.

Despite the differences among themselves, Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin agreed on two essential marks or characteristics (notae) of the true church: the correct preaching of the Word and the proper administration of the sacraments… The Anabaptists, on the other hand, insisted that discipline, carried out in accordance with the instruction of Jesus in Matt 18:15–18, was an indispensable mark of the true church… (Kindle Locations 6568-6573)

Menno wrote three treatises on the subject of church discipline.

So prominent did the role of excommunication become in the Dutch Anabaptist tradition that one historian has dubbed the entire movement as “Anabanism.”3 …In his later years Menno regarded the strict practice of discipline as one of the features that distinguished the peaceful Anabaptists from their violence-prone rivals: “It is more than evident that if we had not been zealous in this matter these days, we would be considered and called by every man the companions of the sect of Münster and all perverted sects.” (Kindle Locations 6579-6584)

Church discipline was essential, especially for a church without the governing “help” of magistrates. But it was also a point of great controversy among the Anabaptists. For example, should a wife sleep with her husband if he was under church discipline? Answers varied.

…The formal ban was, at least in theory, only a social confirmation of a severance from Christ that had already occurred in the heart of the unrepentant member:

No one is excommunicated or expelled by us from the communion of the brethren but those who have already separated and expelled themselves from Christ’s communion either by false doctrine or improper conduct. For we do not want to expel any, but rather to receive; not to amputate, but rather to heal; not to discard, but rather to win back; not to grieve, but rather to comfort; not to condemn, but rather to save.

The pastoral tone of this statement, which comes from Menno’s Admonition on Church Discipline (1541), was in fact often betrayed by the vindictive and harsh recriminations often involved in the shunning of expelled members. (Kindle Locations 6600-6607)

I don’t have time or space to reflect deeply here on this issue of the purity of the Church. It was a burning issue in Menno’s day, and it remains a burning one today. On the one hand, I resonate deeply with the Anabaptist insistence that Christ’s grace transforms individuals! I also heartily affirm their rejection of corpus christianum and their insistence on a believers’ Church.

That said, it is no secret that even Menno was distressed in his latter days by harsh applications of church discipline and the resulting church divisions. (Listen here to a fascinating talk by Chester Weaver which contrasts this Dutch Anabaptist experience with the Swiss Brethren emphasis on brotherly love.) Perhaps the strongest warning I would sound today is that it is deadly to retain the Anabaptist emphasis on the purity of the church while also forgetting Menno’s clear teaching about the gospel of grace and the regenerating power of the Spirit.

Let me end with three more quotes from George–one summarizing what we’ve already discussed, and two introducing more of Menno’s marks of the church:

Faced with persecution and hostility from without, the Anabaptist churches were especially on guard against corruption or laxity from within. Membership in an Anabaptist church was neither casual nor assumed; participation was perforce hearty and vigorous. A true, visible church was at once a rebaptized company of gathered saints, separated from the world in its autonomous polity and eschewal of all violent connections, and a squad of spiritual shock troops separating back to the world through congregational discipline those members whose lives betrayed their profession. (Kindle Locations 6622-6626)

Another mark of the Church:

Perhaps more so than with most other Christian groups, it is difficult to separate the ecclesiology of the Anabaptists from their ethics. Menno felt that genuine compassion for the poor was one of the marks that distinguished his movement from that of the mainline reformers. He criticized the “easygoing gospel and barren bread-breaking” of the established clergy who lived in luxury while their poor members begged for food, and the old, lame, blind, and suffering ones were shunted. (Kindle Locations 6780-6783, emphasis added)

And one final mark of the true Church:

Menno… believed the true church of Christ was characterized by the fact that it suffers and endures persecution but does not inflict persecution upon anyone. The gospel was to be preached to everyone, but no one was to be compelled by force to accept it. These principles are accepted as axiomatic by large segments of modern society. Yet we should not forget that they were first enunciated at great risk by the early Anabaptists. (Kindle Locations 6794-6797. B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Emphasis added)

(Next up: the ecclesiology of William Tyndale.)

What did you learn from these excerpts of Timothy George’s survey of Menno’s ecclesiology? What do you think we should learn from Menno today? What are the strengths and weaknesses of our early Mennonite ecclesiological DNA? Share your insights and questions in the comments below. Thank you!


PS: If you are enjoying this series, be sure to buy Timothy George’s book! He has much more to say than what I am sharing here. (Disclosure: The link above is an Amazon affiliate link, so I’ll make pennies if you buy the book.)

  1. J. A. Oosterbaan, “The Reformation of the Reformation: Fundamentals of Anabaptist Theology,” MQR 51 (1977): 176.
  2. Max Göbel, Geschichte des Christlichen Leben (Coblenz, 1848), 37.
  3. George H. Williams, The Radical Reformation, (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1992), 485.

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Ecclesiology of the Reformers (4): John Calvin

John Calvin is not a name that most Anabaptists like. Unfortunately, too many people today assume either that Calvin is the ultimate theological authority or, conversely, that his theology is completely warped. Neither assumption is close to the truth.

Given the traditional Anabaptist bias, perhaps it would be helpful to begin this post with a quote from Jacob Arminius (1560-1609)–the Arminius after whom Arminianism is named. After all, we are Arminians and not Calvinists, right? We don’t believe in “once saved, always saved” or that God elects people against their will to be saved or damned. Well, that may be true enough (although the way I’ve phrased things isn’t fair to Calvin or his adherents). But let’s listen to Arminius to see if we should bother listening to Calvin:

After reading of Scripture, which I vehemently inculcate [“hammer home”] more than anything else,… I encourage the reading of the commentaries of John Calvin, which I extol with greatest praise,… for I say that he is incomparable in the interpretation of Scripture, and his comments are far better than anything which the Fathers give us.1

Yes, you read that correctly. So let’s consider a little of what we can learn from Calvin about ecclesiology (church theology and practice).

This post continues our series on the ecclesiology of the Reformers, quoting from Timothy George’s excellent book, Theology of the Reformers. As George writes, “Calvin wrote more in one lifetime than most people are able to read” (Kindle Location 4193). This means that our observations about Calvin’s ecclesiology here will be even more selective than our past posts about Luther and Zwingli were. (See also the introduction to this series. Stay tuned for Menno Simons, William Tyndale, and my conclusions and questions.)

Calvin was a second generation Reformer:

Calvin’s great achievement was to take the classic insights of the Reformation (sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura) and give them a clear, systematic exposition, which neither Luther nor Zwingli ever did, and to adapt them to the civic setting of Geneva. From Geneva they took on a life of their own and developed into a new international theology… (Kindle Locations 3781-3784)

Calvin was an exceptional student, well-trained in Latin, theology, and law. By the time he graduated from his studies, his first love was studying ancient texts in original languages. Upon Calvin’s conversion to Protestantism, he soon became a natural but reluctant leader. From Calvin himself:

But I was utterly amazed
That before a year had passed
All those who yearned
For pure doctrine
Were coming again and again to me
To learn it.
Even though I had scarcely commenced
To study it myself…
In short, although I always cherished
The goal of living in private, incognito,
God so led me and caused me to turn
By various changes
That he never left me at peace in any place
Until, in spite of my natural disposition
He brought me into the limelight.
(Kindle Locations 3908-3925, emphasis added.)

Calvin was above all a teacher in the Church. Calvin’s teaching has endured largely because of his writing, and none of his writings has been more influential than his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Why did Calvin write (and rewrite, and rewrite) this book? He wrote it as a training manual for the Church:

The primary purpose of the Institutes… was catechetical. From the time of his conversion, Calvin had been pressed to serve as a teacher of those who were hungry for the true faith. One can still see a cave near the city of Poitiers where Calvin was said to have ministered to the needs of a (literally!) underground congregation. He knew firsthand the urgent need for a clearly written manual of instruction that would present the rudiments of a biblical theology and lead young Christians into a deeper understanding of the faith. (Kindle Locations 4002-4006, emphasis added.)

Calvin was “conscripted” (fascinating story) to come to Geneva to lead the Reformation there:

Calvin was genuinely shocked at the idea and protested that he was ill suited for such a task. He could better edify the church by his quiet study and writing. “ The summit of my wishes ,” he later wrote…, “was the enjoyment of literary ease, with something of a free and honorable station.” (Kindle Locations 4028-4031)

From that moment Calvin’s fate was linked to that of Geneva. In his earliest letters after his call, he referred to himself as “Reader in Holy Scripture to the Church in Geneva.” Though he took on many other duties over the years, his primary vocation remained that of pastor and teacher. (Kindle Locations 4048-4050, emphasis added.)

Calvin briefly left Geneva, spending three happy years in Strasbourg, where he continued developing and serving as a church leader before returning to Geneva. His time away was profitable. For example:

He gave serious thought to the role of worship in the church and translated a number of psalms into French meter. Thus began the congregational singing of psalms that became such an integral part of French Reformed worship. (Kindle Locations 4063-4065, emphasis added.)

In 1539 Calvin published his Commentary on Romans, a masterful treatment of what for him no less than for Luther was the most important book in the Bible… Eventually he published commentaries on most of the Old Testament and on every book in the New Testament except Revelation and 2 and 3 John. (Kindle Locations 4083-4086, emphasis added.)

Calvin was a church statesman. [He] participated in a series of conferences aimed at reuniting Protestants and Catholics . Unity still seemed possible in 1540 because the Council of Trent had not yet convened… He traveled to Frankfurt, Hagenau, and Worms as a kind of adviser to the Protestant delegations at these interfaith conferences… The real importance of these meetings for Calvin was the worldwide vision of the church they confirmed for him. He lamented the fragmented character of Christendom: “Amongst the greatest evils of our century must be counted the fact that the churches are so divided one from another and that there is scarcely even a human relationship between us.” Calvin was not willing to compromise essentials for the sake of a false peace, but he sought to call the church back to the true basis of its unity in Jesus Christ. (Kindle Locations 4093-4102, emphasis added.)

These three paragraphs hint at the wide range of Calvin’s ecclesiological interests–worship, biblical studies, church unity, and more. I think his lament about church disunity remains timely today!

Upon his return to Geneva, Calvin resumed his series of expository sermons where he had left off three years before.

Calvin was a master preacher in an age when the pulpit was the primary medium of communication to the entire culture. “When the gospel is preached in the name of God,” Calvin said, “it is as if God himself spoke in person.” Following the pattern Zwingli had instituted in Zurich, Calvin generally preached continuously through the books of the Bible. (Kindle Locations 4183-4186, emphasis added.)

Calvin was a teacher and a preacher in the Church. But how did he define the Church? What was its core? What was its relationship to Scripture?

Calvin , like Luther, affirmed that the Scripture was the womb from which the church was born and not vice versa. Popes, councils, even the early church fathers whom Calvin frequently quoted, could be and often were in error. Through the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures authenticated themselves and disclosed their proper interpretation to the diligent believer. (Kindle Locations 4359-4362, emphasis added.)

Significantly, Calvin did not follow Bucer, as did the Reformed tradition generally, in elevating ecclesiastical discipline to the technical status of a nota. For Calvin, as for Luther, the more certain… marks remained the Word purely preached and the sacraments duly administered. However, he did not for that reason disparage the importance of discipline for the well-being of the church. If the saving doctrine of Christ was the soul of the church, then discipline served as its sinews… through which the members of the body were held together, each in its own place. Discipline, then, pertained to the constitution and organization, if not to the definition , of the true congregation. (Kindle Locations 5113-5119, emphasis added.)

So the Church is born from the womb of Scripture and has the saving doctrine of Christ as its soul. But the question of church discipline raises more questions: What is the boundary of the Church? And what is the relationship between the universal (or invisible) Church and the local (or visible) church?

Luther’s predominant concern was with the evangelical center of the church; later reformers took up the difficult task of determining with some precision its circumference. Zwingli, Bucer, and Oecolampadius struggled with this problem; yet it remained for Calvin, the “poor, timid scholar” as he described himself, to exploit fully the theory and practice of the Protestant congregation. Beset by a resurgent Catholicism on the one hand and a proliferating sectarianism on the other, Calvin developed a more formal theory of the relation of the invisible church and the church as an external institution recognizable as true by certain distinguishing marks. (Kindle Locations 5101-5106, emphasis added.)

Calvin’s concern for the order and form of the congregation derived from his emphasis on sanctification as both the process and goal of the Christian life. In contrast to the unilateral accentuation of justification in the Lutheran confessions, Calvin gave precedence to sanctification in his systematic arrangement of the “benefits of Christ.” …In this life the locus of sanctification is the congregation, the visible church, in which the elect participate in the benefits of Christ not as isolated individuals but as members of a body in which “all the blessings which God bestows upon them are mutually communicated to each other” (Inst. 4.1.3). In this way the visible church becomes a “holy community,” an agent of sanctification in the larger society in which every aspect of life is to be brought within the orbit of Christian purposes and Christian regulations. (Kindle Locations 5121-5128, emphasis added.)

If I read only the previous paragraph, I might guess that Calvin was an Anabaptist! (Perhaps this shared concern for sanctification is explained in part by how both Calvin and the Swiss Brethren Anabaptists share Zwinglian roots–Zwingli who was more zealous than Luther both in pruning away extrabiblical practices and in attempting to form good Christian citizens?) How did this concern for sanctification affect Calvin’s thinking about the tension between the visible congregation and the invisible Church?

The two poles of Calvin’s ecclesiology, divine election and the local congregation, are held together in the closest possible connection, frequently in the same sentence. The church is called God’s house, explained Calvin, because “not only has He received us as His sons by the grace of adoption (election), but He Himself dwells in the midst of us” (the congregation)… Only when we realize that Calvin never relaxed the visible/invisible tension can we understand his diverse characterizations of the church. On the one hand, the church appears in mortal danger. If false doctrines are allowed to spread, they will “completely destroy the church.” …At the same time, …human fickleness and unfaithfulness “cannot prevent God from preserving His Church to the end. (Kindle Locations 5142-5150, emphasis added.)

Other than the emphasis on election (perhaps), this still sounds quite Anabaptist. But our next quote sharpens the contrast:

For Calvin the visible church was not a progressive approximation of the invisible. The former was a corpus permixtum, wheat and tares growing in the same field, whereas the latter included elect angels, Old Testament worthies, and assorted predestined souls who find themselves outside the “Lord’s walled orchard.” (Kindle Locations 5151-5153, emphasis added.)

So again, as with Luther and Zwingli but in contrast to the Anabaptists such as Menno Simons, Calvin believed the visible church was a corpus permixtum. And again, perhaps even more clearly than Zwingli (George’s words are a bit vague), Calvin understood the invisible Church to include even beings who have never been part of any NT church. Here, again, is the Zwinglian emphasis on continuity between old and new covenants.

So is it correct to consider the visible church a corpus permixtum? On the one hand I want to say “no,” for in Jesus’ parable the field where the tares grow is the world, not the church (Matt. 13:38). On the other hand I think it is very possible to develop unrealistic, unPauline, and ultimately unbiblical expectations about how pure the Church will be before this present evil age is finally laid to rest (see here). Either way, unbiblical expectations will lead to unbiblical strategies and methods. I would want to push back against the assertion that the visible church is not supposed to be a progressive approximation of the invisible Church, and I would also want to push back against the idea that perfect church order can lead to a perfect match between the two.

I’m not sure this tension was ever fully resolved within Calvin himself–for, as we saw earlier, he, too, was very eager to see the church grow in maturity. He often expressed this by describing the church as a school:

We are conceived in the womb of Mother Church , nourished at her breast, and enrolled as pupils in her school all the days of our lives (Inst. 4.1.4). (Kindle Locations 5159-5160)

The church, of course, is a school from which one never graduates (this side of heaven, if then!), hence the need for continual instruction. The church is also, in the best sense of the term, a “reform school,” complete with specified dress code, censored reading matter, compulsory attendance at chapel, and truant officers to deal with recalcitrant students! (Kindle Locations 5188-5190, emphasis added.)

Okay, that sounds pretty familiar to this modern Mennonite, at least until the truant officers bit. This bit points to another crucial difference between Anabaptists and Calvin–the relationship between church and state:

By rejecting the Anabaptist concept of the congregation as a conventicle sequestered from the environing culture, Calvin rooted his reformation in the “placed Christianity” of the medieval corpus christianum. (Kindle Locations 5268-5270, emphasis added.)

The rule of Christ was to be manifested, ideally, in the institution of a godly magistracy… In the words of Isaiah, Calvin urged the magistrates to be “nursing fathers” to the Reformation. They were to maintain not only civic order but also religious uniformity… The proper relationship of the two [congregation and magistrate] is illustrated by the example of a pertinacious [stubborn] heretic. After thorough examination… and patient admonition, the obstinate heretic may be, must be, expelled from the congregation by excommunication. Beyond this the church cannot go. However, the magistrate was well within his bounden duty in bringing to bear what Calvin called, somewhat euphemistically, “further measures of greater rigor.” (Kindle Locations 5286-5293, emphasis added.)

“Further measures of greater rigor” could include, as Servetus discovered, burning at the stake. It is sad that Calvin did not learn to renounce the sword after his own early experience as a persecuted Protestant minority in France.

I’ll bring this survey of Calvin’s ecclesiology to a close with some quotes about church leadership. Calvin believed that “a fourfold office of pastor, teacher, elder, and deacon… was mandated by Scripture” (Kindle Locations 5194-5199), but he spoke most often and most clearly about pastors.

Calvin believed that the offices of prophet, apostle, and evangelist, so prominent in the New Testament, were temporary in nature and had ceased at the end of the apostolic age. Of the offices that are extant in this dispensation, that of the pastor is clearly the most honorable and the least dispensable for the proper order and well-being of the church. (Kindle Locations 5220-5223, emphasis added.)

What is the role of the pastor?—to represent God’s Son…, to erect and extend God’s kingdom, to care for the salvation of souls, to rule the church that is God’s inheritance. Calvin held that there should be at least one pastor in every town… (Kindle Locations 5227-5230, emphasis added.)

How was a pastor to be chosen? …While it was certainly wrong for an individual to “thrust himself forward” out of self-seeking ambition, it was proper for one moved by a godly desire to prepare for the office. “What are theological schools if not nurseries for pastors?” Yet one had to be publicly called according to the order the church prescribed. (Kindle Locations 5231-5234, emphasis added.)

Ordination… Calvin described as a “solemn rite of institution” into the pastoral office. Calvin elsewhere referred to ordination as a sacrament and admitted that grace was conferred through this outward sign. (Kindle Locations 5236-5237)

But why are pastors so important to the church? “Does not everyone have a chance to read the Scriptures for himself?” asked Calvin. Yes, but pastors had to carve or divide the Word, “like a father dividing the bread into small pieces to feed his children.” Pastors must be thoroughly taught in the Scriptures that they can rightly instruct the congregation in heavenly doctrine. The importance of preaching in Calvin’s thought can hardly be exaggerated. (Kindle Locations 5246-5250, emphasis added.)

The pastor is charged with preaching and governing. “A pastor needs two voices,” said Calvin, “one for gathering the sheep and the other for driving away wolves and thieves.” (Kindle Locations 5261-5262, emphasis added.)

Calvin did not hesitate to advocate a double standard for clergy/laity… Calvin had not here relapsed into the two-tiered morality of medieval Christendom. Rather, he was concerned with the visibility of the church, with the “face” of the church. An unworthy minister can do irreparable harm to the congregation. For this reason he must hold to a stricter accountability. (Kindle Locations 5263-5268, emphasis added.)

I think we conservative Anabaptists could learn from Calvin’s emphasis on the importance of pastors and preaching. I am not entirely comfortable with everything that Calvin and some of his Reformed heirs say about the father-like authority of pastors, and I think a sacramental understanding of ordination sometimes bears bad fruit even in our own churches. I would want to remember Luther’s insistence on the priesthood of all believers and his reminder, spoken in the voice of a godly congregation, that “What we give him today we can take away from him tomorrow,” should the pastor prove unworthy. (And Calvin almost certainly agreed; reread the last quote.)

But, caveats aside, I have been impressed with how much more seriously many Reformed preachers take their duties as teachers and preachers of Scripture than many leaders in our own churches do. Most church members never rise above the level of the biblical understanding and vision cast by their pastors. We could learn, I believe, from Calvin’s emphasis on pastoral training. I know from experience that there is a helpful “third way” between seminary training and no training (and I have also been blessed by leaders in our own church fellowships who have had some formal seminary training). If more local church leaders caught a vision for rigorous training right in their own congregations, we might be surprised at the caliber of our future leaders.

I’ll give the last word to Timothy George:

In the midst of our secular culture, we need to appropriate Calvin’s vision of the church as the special creation of the Holy Spirit, a community that can point men and women beyond itself to the transcendent source of their lives and of life itself. On the other hand, we can only deplore Calvin’s coercive view of society, his intolerance of dissenters, his acquiescence in the death of Servetus, notwithstanding his plea for leniency in the mode of execution. (Kindle Locations 5363-5366. B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

(Next up: the ecclesiology of Menno Simons.)

What do you think? Are you surprised by anything in this survey of Calvin’s ecclesiology? What would you add? What do you think we should learn from his example? Gather the sheep and drive off the wolves by sharing your insights in the comments below!


PS: If you are enjoying this series, be sure to buy Timothy George’s book! He has much more to say than what I am sharing here. (Disclosure: The link above is an Amazon affiliate link, so I’ll make pennies if you buy the book.)

  1. Jacobus Arminius to Sebastian Egbert, 3 May, 1607, Christiaan Hartsoeker and Philippas van Limborch, eds., Præstantium ac eruditorum visorum epistolæ ecclesiasticæ et theologicæ (Amsterdam Henricum Welstentium, 1660), 236-37. As quoted by Mark A. Ellis, ed., in The Arminian Confession of 1621 (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2005), vii. Emphasis added.

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