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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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“Men learned in the Greek and Hebrew languages”

(Old Facebook Post)

Did you know that Conrad Grebel and Felix Mantz were “men learned in the German, Latin, Greek, and also Hebrew, languages”? (From the Hutterite Chronicle.) Felix Mantz had even been marked out by Zwingli for teacher of Hebrew in Zwingli’s projected evangelical academy. The Hutterite Chronicle also states that “soon thereafter [after the first re-baptism service] several others made their way to them [to Grebel, Mantz, and Blaurock], for example, Balthasar Hubmaier of Friedberg, Louis Haetzer, and still others, men well instructed in the German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages, very well versed in Scripture.”

Do we have such men in our churches today? Or we content to pretend such education is really unnecessary–claiming, on the one hand, that Scripture is plain enough that education beyond high school is only likely to confuse our interpretation and relying, on the other hand, rather casually on the expert scholarship of others–those who translate our Bibles for us, produce our Bible dictionaries and commentaries, and do the heavy work for us of refuting false doctrine by their careful exegesis of Scripture? Should our own heritage teach us something about the crucial role of exegesis in biblical languages? (I’m posting these questions as someone who cannot read Hebrew or Greek.)


Follow-up reflections:

Conservative Anabaptists have no truly first-rate Bible scholars, to my knowledge (despite lots of wonderful second and third-rate Bible teachers), and I think our doctrine suffers for it in ways that tend to hamper the health of our churches and the success of our witness.

I remember John Piper once stopping in the middle of one of his teaching sessions (something pretty technical, I forget) and telling his audience that most of them should not live the life he does. He told of how he walked passed a homeless man on the way to the meeting, too busy to help because of the fast pace of his life as a scholar-pastor-teacher. Most people should be free enough to stop and help. His point was that the church needs a few people like himself and lots of people not like himself. I think he was right. I’m arguing we might not have the few scholars that we need.


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“What I learned in seminary” — a list for pastors

(Old Facebook Post – Revised)

Pastors, please feed the sheep! I’ve noticed that sheep who are fed low-nutrition, fast-food leftovers either shrivel up spiritually (sometimes in agony of starvation, sometimes dumbly, without awareness) or else start feeding in other, richer pastures. Neither will be good for the flock in your charge! So please take extra time away from your business or employment, dig more deeply in God’s Word than you ever have before, and craft rich meals. Seek the training you need to excel. God bless all who are already doing this!

Here’s a link with good points for self-examination (written by seminary graduate Sol Rexius). A favorite excerpt:

“I learned to trust a man who is humble enough to say nothing more than God says and bold enough to say nothing less.”


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