Saturday, March 28, 2009

Calvin: on the visible Church and apostasy – part 3

In part 3 of this series, we shall continue to explore Calvin’s thoughts on the visible Church, keeping in mind that he was attempting to defend a mediating position between the Catholic churches which remained in communion with the Bishop of Rome, and the Anabaptist sects. [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.]

After delineating “the distinguishing marks” of a ‘true’ church, Calvin then goes on to write:

We have laid down as distinguishing marks of the church the preaching of the Word and the observance of the sacraments? These can never exist without bringing forth fruit and prospering by God’s blessing. I do not say that wherever the Word is preached there will be immediate fruit; but wherever it is received and has a fixed abode, it shows its effectiveness. However it may be, where the preaching of the gospel is reverently heard and the sacraments are not neglected, there for the time being no deceitful or ambiguous form of the church is seen; and no one is permitted to spurn its authority, flout its warnings, resist its counsels, or make light of its chastisements—much less to desert it and break its unity. For the Lord esteems the communion of his church so highly that he counts as a traitor and apostate from Christianity anyone who arrogantly leaves any Christian society, provided it cherishes the true ministry of Word and sacraments. He so esteems the authority of the church that when it is violated he believes his own diminished. (4.1.10)

Once again, Calvin takes a very stern stance on the issue of schism, to the extent that he says, “the Lord esteems the communion of his church so highly that he counts as a traitor and apostate from Christianity anyone who arrogantly leaves any Christian society, provided it cherishes the true ministry of Word and sacraments”.

Now, contrast these words of Calvin, with the present day landscape of conservative Calvinism in America. Let’s examine those denominations which embrace the Westminster Standards (Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Westminster Larger and Shorter catechisms). But first, a brief history of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. According to Frank Mead’s Handbook of Denominations (10th edition), “the first American presbytery”, was, “founded in Philadelphia in 1706”. “American Presbyterians met in a general synod in 1729 and adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith, together with the Larger and Shorter Catechism”. A brief split occurred in 1740 between ministers who embraced the “‘new birth’ revivalism…which grew out of the Great Awakening enthusiasm”, with those who upheld “the old creedal Calvinism”. The two sides reunited in 1757 and remained pretty much united until 1837, when a split between “Old School” and “New School” Presbyterians occurred. The civil war precipitated further splits. The Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA) became identified with “Northern” Presbyterianism, while in 1857, “several Southern New School synods had withdrawn to form the United Synod of the Presbyterian Church”. This was shortly following by the “greater schism” in 1861, “when 47 Southern presbyteries of the Old School formed the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America. Then in 1867, the two aforementioned “Southern” denominations merged to form the Presbyterian in the United States (PCUS). The PCUSA and PCUS officially reunited in 1983 forming the new PCUSA.

Prior to this reunification, an important schism between the conservatives and liberals had taken place, over what has been termed the “fundamentalist-modernist controversy”. On June 11, 1936 the now famous G. Gresham Machen, a former professor at the Princeton Theological Seminary (on July 18, 1927, Machen, with his colleagues Oswald Allis, Robert Wilson and Cornelius Van Til, formed the conservative Westminster Theological Seminary, in Philadelphia – see Longfield’s, The Presbyterian Controversy, for in depth details), with “a group of about 300 people…met in Philadelphia to form a new church that would be true to the Bible”. But, unity within this new church did not last very long: “A year later it became apparent that the new church was actually composed of two groups with views so divergent [even though both ascribed to the Westminster Standards] as to make continued unity impossible”. A split occurred on September 6, 1938, forming two new churches: the Bible Presbyterian Church, and the church now known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC).

In the south, a split between the conservatives and liberals took place a bit later in 1973, and the conservative denomination now known as the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) was formed. However, the schisms were far from over, more splits loomed on the horizon.

In 1981, another split from the PCUSA occurred, forming the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC). 1998 witnessed the emergence of the Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches out of the PCA. (This schism has its roots in “Federal Vision” controversy.) And in 2006, the ultra-conservative Westminster Presbyterian Church in the United States (WPCUS) was formed (the OPC and PCA were just not ‘conservative’ enough!)

As of 2009, I am aware of no less than 8 conservative Presbyterian denominations which adhere to the Westminster Standards (the 7th and 8th being the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America). But, this is merely ‘the-tip-of-the-iceberg’, for there exists many other conservative denominations that have emerged within the Calvinistic/Reformed tradition (e.g. Reformed Baptists, Reformed Episcopal Church, Free Reformed Churches of North America, United Reformed Churches, et al.). Though these other Calvinistic/Reformed denominations have not adopted the Westminster Standards, the standards they have chosen to embrace are virtually identical, doctrinally speaking.

So, our little history lesson ends with a question: how faithful have these conservative Calvinistic/Reformed denominations been to Calvin’s teaching on schism?

Grace and peace,



Mike L said...


As your history lesson shows, the basic problem with Calvin's ecclesiology is the basic problem with all Protestant ecclesiology. He believed that the true Church can be identified by her adherence to biblical truth, where that truth is to be understood in a manner not essentially dependent on the authority of the Church herself. Once one goes down that road, then the question what counts as "the" Church becomes just as much a matter of opinion, and for the same reasons, as the question what biblical truth is.


R. E. Aguirre. said...

Fascinating post. I was once in an OPC church that divided over the "24 hour/days of creation" in Genesis debate. Half the congregation went to the Reformed Church in the US the other half stayed...

R. E. Aguirre
Paradoseis Journal

David Waltz said...

Hi Mike,

An accurate and concise summation...

Grace and peace,


David Waltz said...

Hello R.E.A.,

I too was in an OPC church that had some difficulties; some members ended up leaving over the issue of paedocommunion.

I also cannot help but think of all the commotion that Theonomy/Reconstructionism caused in the 90’s…

Grace and peace,


Ken said...

Yes, that is why some have called the Presbyterians, "The Split Ps".

However, there is difference in forming a new church over a secondary or tertiary issue, and as long as they continue to hold to the essentials of Biblical inerrancy and the Westminister Standards, the good Presbyterians seem to honor each other as brothers and work together, while they may differ over issues like theonomy and Postmilliumism and 24 hour vs. framework or day age; or Presuppositional apologetics vs. Classical or Evidential; or paedo-communion.

R.C. Sproul constantly has other Presbyterians (ARP, OPC, RPC, PCA, others also) ( but not PCUSA, as they are liberal and don't even believe in inerrancy, with some exceptions) and even Reformed Baptists also and other conservative Lutherans and conservative Anglicans writing articles in his Table Talk magazine.

They affirm each other as believers in Christ and have unity in love over the gospel, but may disagree on those issues that are secondary, compared to primary issues of inerrancy, and the gospel.

So, at the time Calvin writes, he was inheriting all ideas from the RCC European Culture - there was nothing else except the Orthodox in the east and since Theodosius (380 AD) and Justinian (550s AD), Church and state were married.

It still took several centuries for the Protestant Reformation to develop into the separation of church and state (Magna Carta, Locke, Jefferson, USA constitution and Dec. of Ind., etc.) in order to allow churches to follow their consciences and convictions without killing one another.

That, it seems to me, was a good and Biblical development in Western European history and culture.

look down at the Subordination in the Early Fathers post for some interaction with those specific references you brought out from Dr. Thiel.

Ken said...

The religious wars in Europe, it seems to me, were the result of a false understanding of punishments for church discipline and heresy, etc.

Thank God for the USA and some kind of "separation of church and state"; although recent years have swung the other way toward too much tolerance and "anything goes" and government and the media doing a "revision" of our Christian history and now, seeking to really get rid of Christian morality, with the abortion and homosexuality issues and government take over of businesses and free enterprise and now talk of penalizing and even getting rid of "charitable contributions". The Obama administration seems to be trying to destroy western capitalism and the moral foundation that is the only thing that would keep greed in check.

Voice in the Desert said...

"I do not say that wherever the Word is preached there will be immediate fruit; but wherever it is received and has a fixed abode, it shows its effectiveness."

Does it matter that there is/has been such fixed abode in Rome which has existed for roughly 2,000 years?