Calvin’s Doctrine of the Church (IV)
When Calvin penned his response to Cardinal Jacopo Sadeloto he had been relieved of his pastoral duties in Geneva. He wrote his reply from Strasbourg on September 1, 1539. Calvin’s theology would be formed during his stay in Strasbourg due in large part to the role that Martin Bucer played in his life. It would also be a time of relative joy as he labored in a congregation of French immigrants who had fled for their lives. He would also write his commentary on Romans from Strasbourg.
Even though Calvin was no longer serving a congregation in Geneva, he was prepared to defend the rightful, lawful place of the Reformed pastors vis-à-vis breaking with the Roman Catholic Church. I do not have the time to give a complete overview of Calvin’s reply, but there are certain key facets of the letter that I would like to bring to your attention.
First, is the importance Calvin places on the role of the local pastor. What does he see as their primary functions, tasks? He describes a twofold purpose that pastors ought to fulfill: First, they should spend their time and efforts in edifying the Church by preaching and teaching the Word of God and second, they are “to repel the machinations of those who strive to impede the work of God.”
Moreover, pastors are to preach the Word in a manner that is both understandable and instructive to those in the Kingdom of Christ. This way, God’s people avoid being immersed in a gulf of error and a better Church is formed.
As we read through Calvin’s response, one of his key texts is Romans. 11:36: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (ESV). Regarding this text he says, “it is not very sound theology to confine a man’s thoughts so much to himself, and not to set before him, as the prime motive of his existence, zeal to illustrate the glory of God. For we are born first of all for God, and not for ourselves.”
This cuts against the grain of what the Roman Catholic Church was teaching in the 16th century, but it also poses an interesting question to modern evangelicalism: Why do we worship? Is it our intention to have our needs, real or perceived, met during worship or are we there in order to offer a time of true, biblical worship to the one, true, and living God? Sadoleto had raised the question of the importance of worship when he wrote to the Genevans. In his rebuttal, Calvin points out that worship is indeed important, but more important is whether the worship is according to the Word of God or according to the precepts of men. Calvin believed that the Roman Catholic Church presented a worship that was attended by all kinds of pomp, but which was, at bottom, man-centered and self-serving. Nevertheless, Calvin agrees with Sadoleto’s premise about the central place of worship in the Christian faith. In terms of what the Reformers were achieving Calvin writes, “I have also no difficulty in conceding to you that there is nothing more perilous to our salvation than a preposterous and perverse worship of God.”
What were then the main differences between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church? Calvin offers the following explanation: “The primary rudiments by which we are wont to train to piety those whom we wish to gain as disciples to Christ are these; viz., not to frame any new worship of God for themselves at random, and after their own pleasure, but to know that the only legitimate worship is that which He himself approved from the beginning. For we maintain what the sacred oracle declared, that obedience is more excellent than any sacrifice (1 Sam. xv. 22). In short, we train them by every means to be contented with the one rule of worship which they received from His mouth, and bid adieu to all fictitious worship.”
Once again, this ought to give us reason to pause and reflect upon what God truly desires regarding worship in spirit and truth (cf. John 4:24). In true worship, the Holy Spirit does not reveal new doctrines to the Church but impresses the truth of the gospel on our minds. Here we discover both the essence and simplicity of New Testament worship. One of the primary means whereby Christians come to understand what constitutes a biblical liturgy for worship is through the Word of God and the working of the Spirit.
These are not separate concepts whereby the Holy Spirit can give “special revelations” that contradict what the Bible says, much like we find in far too much of Christianity today and on some evangelical TV shows. Calvin combines the Word and the Spirit: “Learn then, by your own experience, that it is no less unreasonable to boast of the Spirit without the Word than it would be absurd to bring forward the Word itself without the Spirit.”
How is the Church to be understood? Is every body that meets and claims to be Christian truly Christian? Is everything that passes as Christianity actually Christianity? to pose the question that Princeton theologian B.B. Warfield posed long ago. The procedures whereby Christians choose churches today leaves a great deal to be desired. Calvin was convinced that there were clear “notes” or “marks” Christians should be looking for in their endeavor to seek out, find, and then attach themselves to a local congregation.
He conceives of the Church in the following manner: “…it is the society of all the saints, a society which, spread over the whole world, and existing in all ages, yet bound together by the one doctrine and the one Spirit of Christ, cultivates and observes unity of faith and brotherly concord. With this Church we deny that we have any disagreement. Nay, rather, as we revere her as our mother, so we desire to remain in her bosom.”
Sadoleto has also raised certain foundations by which Christ’s Church could be known. Calvin agrees that these foundations ought to be present and aids the readers in discerning what they might be. He postulates four foundations on which the safety of the Church is founded: First, is biblical doctrine that is preached clearly. Second, is church discipline. Third, are the sacraments of the church properly administered. Fourth, are the various ceremonies such as weddings and funerals that needed to be done decently and in good order.
In all this, the preaching of the Word is central and Calvin doesn’t spare Sadoleto or the Roman Catholic Church with regard to content of the preaching of the Word. In order to feed and nourish God’s flock spiritually, the preacher must employ both exposition and application and be concerned to preach the Word. Here is what he replied to Sadoleto about the dismal nature of preaching in the Roman Catholic Church: “Nay, what one sermon was there from which old wives might not carry off more whimsies than they could devise at their own fireside in a month?”
But the reply was not merely about preaching, but also about the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. It is a well known fact that central to the Reformation was a biblical understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith. Therefore, in the course of his reply, Calvin proceeds to defend it from the misconceptions caused by Roman Catholicism. Just how central is the doctrine of justification by faith to the Church? Calvin writes, “Wherever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrow…the gross ignorance of this doctrine which even still continues in all your churches, declares that our complaint is by no means ill-founded.” One can only speculate what Calvin would say to the ridiculous excesses in modern evangelicalism and their disdain for and lack of knowledge of the basic tenets of the Christian faith.
Finally, for our purposes, Calvin designates three areas near the end of his reply in which the Roman Catholic Church was severely deficient: First, because they chose to have such a man-centered worship, the Word of God was buried. Second, the virtue of Christ was left in profound oblivion. This was due to several reasons. The Eucharist with its doctrine of transubstantiation was a re-sacrificing of our Lord. The homilies were kept to a bare minimum thereby not giving ample time and attention to the proclamation of the riches of Christ through the preaching. His active and passive obedience and all of his merits found surrogates in the meritorious works of Christians. Finally, the pastoral office was subverted. Whereas Sadoleto and his ilk rarely if ever functioned as true shepherd of God’s flock, much of the same is still true today. Pastors are more like CEOs than they are pastors. The office is subverted when pastors do not fulfill their biblical charge.
The upshot of this is that the modern evangelical Church has some frightening affinities with Roman Catholicism. As much as they claim to despise what the Roman Catholic Church stands for their theology and their actions tend to lean in the Roman Catholic direction. Modern evangelicals are just as semi-Pelagian as Roman Catholics; they are just as ignorant of basic doctrines as the Roman Catholics in Calvin’s time were and still are today. The pomp, glitter, and slick packaging that attends much of the modern seeker-sensitive, user-friendly churches would parallel if not exceed that in the Roman Catholic Church at the time of Calvin. Sermons are cut short so that the entertainment can take center stage. In the final analysis, what is or what are the deciding factors that differentiate modern evangelicals from Roman Catholics? Something to think about.
Next week we’ll examine Calvin’s treatise The Necessity of Reforming the Church.
 John C. Olin [ed.], John Calvin & Jacopo Sadoleto: A Reformation Debate, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966), p. 51.
 Ibid., 53.
 Ibid., 57.
 Ibid., 58.
 Ibid., 59
 Ibid., 61.
 Ibid., 62. Italics mine.
 Compare T.H.L. Parker, Calvin’s Preaching, (Louisville: Westminster Press, 1992), pp. 79ff.
 Olin, ARD, 65.
 Ibid., 66.