Tag Archives: John Calvin

Arminians, Calvinists, and Two Theological Terms Worth Chucking

There are real theological differences, and then there are ways we just talk past each other. In this post I’d like to share two of my pet peeves with how Arminians and Calvinists sometimes define the terms of their debates. The differences are certainly real, and I don’t pretend to understand them in depth. But I’ve heard enough by now to be quite sure that the way we are using some terms probably isn’t helping anyone.

So, in the interests of pugnacity and peace (or at least the latter), let’s get started!

Since I’m more of an Arminian than a Calvinist—though I’ve benefited from listening to both and though I wish I had time to also explore molinism (such as in this book)—I’ll start closer to home and take Arminians to task first.

(1) Arminians, stop saying Calvinists believe in “once saved, always saved”!

If you ask any well-trained Calvinist whether they believe this, they will certainly say “no.” As Craig Keener (an Arminian NT scholar) says, “‘Once-saved-always-saved’ as it is commonly taught in many churches is neither Calvinism nor Arminianism.” Similarly, I recall hearing Bill Mounce, a self-proclaimed 4-point Calvinist (I recall he doubts “irresistible grace”), strongly deny that he believes in “once saved, always saved.” He speaks passionately against the kind of gospel invitation that he heard as a boy—the kind where you are invited to come down the “sawdust trail” to the “altar” and “believe” and—in Mounce’s words—“have a moment of positive volition.” No repentance needed, and not even any clear specificity about what you are supposed to believe. And, if you respond, you are assured that you are eternally saved—no matter how grossly or freely you sin thereafter.

That, my friends, is “once saved, always saved.” And unfortunately, it is what some people promote (both some self-professed Calvinists as well as all true Free Grace advocates, etc.). And some who use the term do seem to use it to promote apparently orthodox Calvinist positions that do not match the scenario above. (For example, this is the first link that pops up on a Google search for the term.)

So what is the problem with using the term? The term “once saved, always saved” normally implies that there is no need for a Christian to live a holy life in order to be assured of salvation. But John Calvin didn’t believe this. Listen to Timothy George’s analysis:

In his commentary on John 10:28, Calvin declared:

…This is a remarkable passage, teaching us that the salvation of all the elect is as certain as God’s power is invincible… He who keeps what we have committed unto him is greater and more powerful than all; and so we have nothing to be afraid of, as if our life were in danger.

This is a rich and nuanced doctrine and cannot be reduced to the shorthand formula “once saved, always saved.” Calvin did not minimize the sin of apostasy, that is, a complete falling away and utter renunciation of the gospel. However, this sin could be committed only by one who had not received the “incorruptible seed” of the Spirit in the new birth. Such unbelievers might show evidence of the Christian life, and might even possess what Calvin called “temporary faith,” but in the end they would prove to be false saints… On the other hand, true believers might fall into sin, even gross sin, but, sustained by the Spirit, they would not totally or finally be lost. Those who took this teaching as an occasion for laxity were presuming on the grace of God and stood in jeopardy of divine judgment. (Theology of the Reformers, Kindle location 4941, bold added)

I am not convinced Calvin is right in every point (as summarized here by George), but clearly we are not doing him justice to claim he believed “once saved, always saved.”

So, what should we say Calvinists believe? Timothy George uses the term “indefectibility of faith” and the Dictionary of the Christian Church uses the term “indefectibility of grace” (pg. 268)—both implying that Christians will not defect (turn away from) from faith or grace. A more common term was made popular through the “Five Points of Calvinism” (TULIP) that attempt to summarize the conclusions of the Synod of Dort half a century after Calvin’s death (these are a summary of disagreements with Arminianism, not a summary of Calvin’s whole theology). This term is “perseverance of the saints,” and it is probably the best term to use if you want to describe what Calvinists actually believe.

A classic explanation of this term is found in the seventeenth chapter of the Westminster Confession of faith:

They, whom God hath accepted in His Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by His Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved… Nevertheless, they may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein… (bold added)

This conundrum naturally raises the question of assurance of salvation—how can one really know whether they are saved or not? The Westminster Confession addresses this topic in the next chapter:

…Such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love Him in sincerity, endeavouring to walk in all good conscience before Him, may, in this life, be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, which hope shall never make them ashamed… Therefore it is the duty of everyone to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure, that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance; so far is it from inclining men to looseness. (bold added)

This is not Arminianism, to be sure. But neither is it a flippant “once saved, always saved.” This more nuanced theological understanding explains why I have repeatedly heard multiple Calvinist pastors, theologians, and seminary teachers insist that a Christian has no right to be sure of their salvation unless there is evident fruit of holiness in their lives. Not perfection, certainly, and maybe not even the level of holiness expected in some Arminian or many Anabaptist churches. But definite evidence of the fruit of regeneration, nonetheless. Otherwise there is no assurance of salvation.

In summary, only bad Calvinists believe in “once saved, always saved,” just as only bad Arminians believe that they earn their salvation by their good works rather than relying on grace. If you don’t want to be accused of the latter, don’t accuse Calvinists of the former!

Which brings me to my pet peeve for Calvinists…

(2) Calvinists, stop implying that Arminians don’t believe in “Doctrines of Grace”!

“The Doctrines of Grace” is a term Calvinists often use to summarize their classic five points (see above). A quick survey on Amazon shows that this term is currently a favorite phrase among Calvinists choosing titles for their books. A Google search of the term leads to a host of more Calvinist resources, headed by a link to the website of John MacArthur, a staunch Calvinist publicist if ever there was one.

The problem with this term—I am speaking with some authority now as a non-Calvinist listener—is that it implies (to at least some listeners) that those who disagree with the “Five Points of Calvinism” do not believe in, rely on, or teach the grace of God. Arminians deny such a charge wholeheartedly!

To be certain, I don’t think most Calvinist intend to imply quite that, despite their belief that Arminians misunderstand how grace works. But, intentional or not, their ownership of the term “doctrines of grace” can tend to leave that impression. (I see some others agree with me that the term feels offensive and misleading. See, for example, here and here. Note: I do not intend to affirm all other aspects of these links.)

The problem here is that grace is a much more slippery subject than is often imagined—by most people, not just Calvinists. What exactly is grace? Who gets to define it? Can grace come with any conditions and still be grace? Can it be resisted and still be grace? Can it be potentially withdrawn and still be grace? How is God’s grace different from the grace that humans show? How is it the same? And is our modern conception of grace the same as how ancient Jews—including the apostles–thought of it?

Some of my thoughts here are triggered by an interview with the author of an important new book on grace. I am referring to John Barclay and his 2015 book Paul and the Gift, which has been described as “must reading for all interested in Paul, and in particular in his concept of grace.” That endorsement comes from Ben Witherington—a prominent Arminian NT scholar—and he has interviewed Barclay at length on his blog.

Here are some extended interview excerpts that underscore (a) the complexity of defining grace and (b) the fact that Calvinists most certainly aren’t alone in affirming grace:

JOHN: …Paul is not just a covenantal theologian with an eschatological or a radical social twist. He has a radical, even dangerous, view of God’s grace, but I was struggling to see how to articulate that. I realized that to understand what Paul means by ‘grace’ I had to understand how gifts worked in the ancient world, and the deeper I got into that (which is a fascinating subject in itself) the more I began to see that there are different kinds of ‘grace’ in the ancient world, including the ancient Jewish world…

I have tried to trace… how we have acquired the modern notion of a ‘pure gift’ with ‘no strings attached’, but I think it is increasingly recognized now that this is a very modern (indeed, modern Western) notion and not one that is shared in antiquity (or in most non-Western cultures)…

Paul radicalizes the incongruity of grace (grace given without regard to worth), and his understanding of the Christ-gift as an incongruous gift lies at the heart of his Gentile mission (and his own self-understanding). But this does not mean that God gives expecting nothing in return (what I call non-circular or unilateral grace): in fact Romans 6-8 expressly refutes that notion (of ‘cheap grace’) by saying that believers are ‘under grace’ (Rom 6.14). And on a human level, Paul does not think that gifts carry no obligations: see Romans 15.27 (on the Jerusalem collection as an obliged return gift), for example!…

I discuss Luther and Calvin at some length (after discussion of Augustine, on whom they both draw). I think Luther and Calvin were both absolutely right in emphasizing the incongruity of divine grace (given without regard for our merit or worth), but they also radicalized other aspects of Paul’s theology of gift (in Luther’s case, a clear move towards the gift as a unilateral, one-way movement) that go significantly beyond Paul. I also think that their (in their context necessary) emphasis on grace as the cure for sin, guilt and anxiety, left out another and very important social dimension of Paul’s theology of grace. Since God’s grace has no regard for human criteria of worth, it enables the construction of innovative, counter-cultural communities that sit loose to dominant cultural values… (Source for above quotes, bold added)

JOHN: I think are two questions here: i) should the gift be given without regard to the worth of the recipient and ii) should a gift elicit a return of some sort? The two can run together (a worthy recipient might be one more likely to express gratitude), but they are also seperable [sic]…. We have created notions of ‘altruism’ and ‘disinterest’ that are distinctly modern (making disinterest and interest mutually exclusive). It feels like that is Christian, and there are certainly Christian reasons for risky forms of giving that may not elicit a response, but the core Christian tradition is that even God’s giving wants a response from humans, even if it does not and cannot require it. Does God give to us ‘with no thought of return’? Does not God give to us, without regard to our worth, but lovingly wanting the return that fulfils our human potential, that is the return of thanksgiving (see Romans 1) and faith (see Romans 4)?

Gift [grace] is a phenomenon that has at least these three facets. The six I have identified are: superabundance (the size of character of the gift); singularity (God’s character as giver and nothing-but-giver); priority (the timing of the gift before any initiative from the other side); incongruity (the mismatch between the gift and the worth of the recipient; efficacy (the ability of the gift to achieve the giver’s intentions); and non-circularity (gifts that escape any system of exchange or reciprocity)… The point of this analysis will become clear as the book proceeds. It helps to clarify the differences in the highly influential history of reception of Paul (e.g. the differences between Augustine and Pelagius, or between Luther and Calvin: they all believed in grace, but in significantly different ways)… (Source for above quotes, bold added)

BEN: On p. 575 you define ‘gift’ as follows: “Gift denotes the sphere of voluntary, personal relations, characterized by goodwill in the giving of benefit or favor, and eliciting some form of reciprocal return that is both voluntary and necessary for the continuation of the relationship.” I like this definition a lot, and I notice that the word ‘voluntary’ shows up twice in the definition. I would imagine however, that a uber-Calvinistic theologian (e.g. John Piper) would not be happy about that word in a definition of grace, if by voluntary you mean ‘the recipient of the gift could have done otherwise than respond positively’. In other words, a certain kind of theology of predestination, would say that the ‘gift’ and the relationship were predetermined from before the foundation of the universe…

JOHN: First, note that my definition is a definition of gift (the domain of human relations as analysed by anthropology and traced in human history) not a definition of grace, if by the latter we mean ‘the divine gift of grace, given ultimately and definitively in Christ’. However, it would be problematic for Paul, as for us, if our response to grace could not be considered in any sense ‘voluntary’ (i.e. truly willed). Note how much he emphasises in 2 Corinthians 8-9 that the Corinthians’ gift (‘charis’) to Jerusalem should be voluntary and not an extraction (2 Corinthians 9.5); otherwise in his eyes it would not be a gift. Now, ‘voluntary’ in Paul’s eyes does not mean ‘free of any external influence’ (see how much effort he puts into persuading them to make this voluntary gift!): he does not labour under our illusion that we can and should act as completely autonomous individuals. But he does expect that God’s work in us generates our own willing (Phil 2.12-13), as freed agents who could do otherwise (it is possible, in Paul’s eyes, to fall out of grace).

What you are touching on here is the tendency, in a line of interpretation from Augustine, through Calvin, to Jonathan Edwards, to ‘perfect’ (radicalise or absolutise) the efficacy of grace, to the point where it causes, constrains, or compels our own wills. This is to turn God’s agency/will and our agency/will into a zero sum game: the more of one, the less of the other. But God’s will is not on the same level as ours, working in the same causal nexus… To perfect the efficacy of grace in the way you describe is certainly not necessary, even if it is understandably attractive to some. (Source for above quotes, bold added)

Back to the “uber-Calvinistic theologian” John Piper. (Please understand I am using him only because he is a prominent Calvinist proponent, and I hasten to add that I have been greatly blessed by much of his teaching.) Here is Piper’s explanation of the term “doctrines of grace”:

Probably the most crucial kind of knowledge is the knowledge of what God is like in salvation. That is what the five points of Calvinism are about. Not the power and sovereignty of God in general, but his power and sovereignty in the way he saves people. That is why these points are sometimes called the doctrines of grace. To experience God fully, we need to know not just how he acts in general, but specifically how he saves us — how did he save me? (“What We Believe About the Five Points of Calvinism“, bold added)

Given this explanation, we can see that the “doctrines of grace” are really the “doctrines of how God saves people.” More accurately, they are the “Calvinist doctrines of how God saves people.”

That phrase is not nearly as snappy for book titles, I know, but it is much more accurate! After all, when we probe the finer points of exactly how God saves people, there are many complexities and mysteries, and there have been many different balances of understanding throughout church history. All orthodox Christian understandings, however, have centered on the reality that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ. This is an understanding shared by Arminians as much as by Calvinists.

To deny our need for grace is to deny our need for Christ! Thus withholding the term “doctrines of grace” from Arminians is tantamount to denying that they are Christians at all.

To call one theological system but not the other “the doctrines of grace” is begging the question—assuming the answer before the discussion has begun. Instead, we should be debating this: What are the differences between the Arminian and Calvinist doctrines of grace? And which matches Scripture best?

In sum, it would be helpful if Calvinists would stop insinuating that Arminians are denying our dependence upon grace. Denial of grace is not a classic Arminian stance, just as universal human salvation by grace apart from any human response—at the other end of the spectrum—is not a classic Calvinist belief.


So there you have it: two pet peeves from me, one for Arminians and one for Calvinists. As my dad used to tell me and my brothers, let’s fight nice!

Please add your peaceable thoughts in the comments below. Thank you!


Save page

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.

Save page

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.

Save page