Calvin’s doctrine of the “visible” Church is a unique one—a position which I believe owes a great deal to the historical situation of Calvin’s day. On the one side, Calvin had to defend his schism from the Catholic Church, and on the other, he had to deal with the disregard/neglect of the visible Church as propagated by the various Anabaptist sects. This historical setting gave rise to a view of the Church that attempted achieve a balance of sorts between the two aforementioned positions, and raises two important questions: first, exactly what was Calvin’s doctrine of the Church; and second, is it defensible?
Because Calvin was attempting to achieve a mediating position, his doctrine of the Church is not easy to define. As we shall soon see, on the one hand he speaks of a “universal apostasy” which “seizes the church”; while on the other, he maintains that the churches of his day “remain churches”, and a remnant of “many scattered members of the church persevere in the true unity of the of the faith.” He also tries to defend his schism from the churches of his day that “remain churches”, while he attacks the Anabaptists sects for their schism(s).
Calvin’s most exhaustive treatment of the Church appears in the 4th book of his Institutes. All quotations from the Institutes of the Christian Religion in this post will be from The Westminster Press (1960) edition, translated by Ford Lewis Battles, and edited by John T. McNeill.
From the pen of Calvin we read:
THE TRUE CHURCH WITH WHICH AS MOTHER OF ALL THE GODLY WE MUST KEEP UNITY (4.1.chapter heading)
I shall start, then, with the church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith. “For what God has joined together, it is not lawful to put asunder” [Mark 10:9 p.], so that, for those to whom he is Father the church may also be Mother. And this was so not only under the law but also after Christ’s coming, as Paul testifies when he teaches that we are the children of the new and heavenly Jerusalem [Galatians 4:26]. (4.1.1)
The article in the Creed in which we profess to “believe the church” refers not only to the visible church (our present topic) but also to all God’s elect, in whose number are also included the dead. (4.1.2) [Note that Calvin here explicitly states that his “present topic” will be the VISBLE CHURCH.]
But because it is now our intention to discuss the visible church, let us learn even from the simple title “mother” how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels [Matthew 22:30]. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives. Furthermore, away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation, as Isaiah [Isaiah 37:32] and Joel [Joel 2:32] testify…By these words God’s fatherly favor and the especial witness of spiritual life are limited to his flock, so that it is always disastrous to leave the church. (4.1.4)
9. The marks of the church and our application of them to judgment
From this the face of the church comes forth and becomes visible to our eyes. Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists [cf. Ephesians 2:20]. For his promise cannot fail: “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them” [Matthew 18:20]. But that we may clearly grasp the sum of this matter, we must proceed by the following steps: the church universal is a multitude gathered from all nations; it is divided and dispersed in separate places, but agrees on the one truth of divine doctrine, and is bound by the bond of the same religion…
But we must think otherwise of the whole multitude itself. If it has the ministry of the Word and honors it, if it has the administration of the sacraments, it deserves without doubt to be held and considered a church. For it is certain that such things are not without fruit. In this way we preserve for the universal church its unity, which devilish spirits have always tried to sunder; and we do not defraud of their authority those lawful assemblies which have been set up in accordance with local needs. (4.1.9) [This section is Calvin’s locus classicus concerning the “marks” of a “true church.]
I shall end this second installment of the series with a couple of observations: first, Calvin’s doctrine of the visible Church is certainly a ‘strong’ one, for apart from the Mother’s bosom (i.e. visible Church), “one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation”; and second, we are already seeing Calvin’s belief in the need for unity via the agreement “on the one truth of divine doctrine” (which, IMHO, lends fuel to his somewhat hypocritical hatred of schism).
Much more to come, the Lord willing…
Grace and peace,